Bitter Rice (1949)

Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unitybitter rice poster as Roberto Rossellini’s  Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his ultimate objective was to glorify the working people of Italy while revealing the evils of capitalism.

In a famous sequence in Bitter Rice, the corrupting influence of American culture is juxtaposed against the class solidarity of the women rice workers: Silvana (Silvana Magnano), the bad girl who will betray her fellow laborers, is shown dancing the boogie-woogie, watched by a gum-chewing low-life, Frank (Vittorio Gassman), who abandons his lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) to join her.

Bitter Rice

Silvana is portrayed like a Hollywood pin-up girl, and no small part of Frank’s allure is his promise to take her to America, where “everything is electric.” The sexual attraction between these two is tangled up in a their shared passion for material things; where Francesca finds fulfillment in honest work, Silvana is a willing accessory to the crime, conceived by Frank, to flood the rice fields and steal the harvest, realizing only belatedly the error of her ways when she learns that the necklace he gave her is paste. Guilt-ridden, she kills her lover and jumps from a wooden tower to her death, but she is forgiven by the other workers, who file past her body at the end of the film, each scattering handful of rice over the fallen woman.

The message feels heavy-handed today, but Silvana Magnano’s mesmerizing performance and the brilliant camerawork make Bitter Rice well worth watching. American censors may have agreed with the Italian Marxist critic who complained, “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” but you can’t tell me that Kim Novak’s climb up the wooden steps of the bell tower in Vertigo (1958) wasn’t influenced by Silvana’s suicide.

Strangers on a Train

With thanks to Tim

I like this posteroff the beaten track from Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, because it highlights the film’s zaniness. Robert Walker’s character (Bruno) is creepy, right from the beginning. You can’t imagine why Farley Granger’s character (Guy) agrees to dine alone with him in his compartment, even if the business of their feet touching beneath the table in the train’s bar suggests a homosexual attraction. Hitchcock chose the bisexual Granger for the part, knowing full well that audiences would make the association—which was even more explicit in the Patricia Highsmith novel—but Bruno is clearly a psychopath. And yet, you can’t help smiling in the scenes where Bruno appears. Like Guy, you’re drawn in, just as Hitch intended.

As a director, he left nothing to chance. Throughout the picture, we’re meant to focus on Guy’s cigarette lighter. An expensive gift from his mistress (Anne), it features a pair ofMcGuffin Lighter tennis rackets and an engraving: A to G. Bruno borrowed it and we just know he’s going to use it to implicate Guy in the murder of his unsympathetic wife (who was killed by Bruno). In a tense scene, Bruno drops the lighter down a storm sewer and we see his hand, coming through the grate, fishing around among the debris, a wet leaf, a chewing gum wrapper, a bit of orange peel and a scrap of paper, each item carefully selected by Hitchcock.

He cared more about the visuals than anything, and in thinking about the look of this picture, he was inspired by the cartoons of Charles Addams. This one, for example (is that Uncle Fester, enjoying himself there in the second row?)

addams theater
Hitch has a scene at a tennis match that clearly references Addams’ cartoon, with Bruno in the center, his attention fixed on Guy while everyone else’s heads are going back and forth, following the ball. Offbeat humor.

tennis scene.jpg

Another nice touch, at a cocktail party, involves a society matron (Mrs. Cunningham) who is encouraged by Bruno to imagine how she might knock off her husband. She really gets into the game, coming up with an amusing little scenario where she drives off with her husband, knocks him over the head with a hammer, pours gasoline over him and sets the whole thing ablaze. We’re going along with it too, until Bruno puts his hands around Mrs. Cunningham’s throat and suddenly things get serious.

Raymond Chandler was brought in to write the screenplay for Strangers on a Train, but had a falling out with the director and was removed from the project, his contributions deleted. He considered Hitchcock a philistine for not recognizing “that what is said and how it is said is more important than shooting it upside down through a glass of champagne.”

Sorry, but I’m with Hitch on this one.

Suspicion

Even a die-hard fan of Cary Grant will find him hard to admire here. I blame the screenwriters. The novel on which “Suspicion” was based is psychologically complex, and quite dark. The heroine of the book (played by Joan Fontaine in the picture) strongly suspects that her husband Johnny (Grant) is trying to kill her, but she’s so in love with him that she drinks the glass of milk he gives her, believing that it is poisoned.

Milk

This scene occurs in the film, but Fontaine’s character leaves the milk untouched on her bedside table. You see her face as she contemplates drinking it; Fontaine does love Grant. Who wouldn’t, right?

Well, actually, he is not his usual lovable self in this vehicle. You get flashes of the charming rogue here and there. In one scene, as they drive away from a party and Grant’s character tries to steal a kiss, Fontaine asks him how many women he’s had. Far too many, it turns out. “Once, when I couldn’t go to sleep, I started counting them,” he tells her, “just like sheep jumping over a hedge, and I fell asleep at number 73.”

At moments, you believe that Johnny is truly as bad as Fontaine’s character fears. He seems to have no conscience, is quite manipulative, a pathological liar intent on his own pleasures. He takes advantage of his friend “Beaky” (played by the wonderful Nigel Bruce—imagine a slightly dissolute Watson, still thick but endearing as ever), embezzles from his cousin, threatens Fontaine more than once.

But the evil you begin to perceive is always deflected and in the end you are supposed to think that Johnny is hopeless at managing his finances but at heart a decent sort who can be saved by the love of a good woman. Too bad, because watching Grant abandon his leading-man goodness and embrace a truly immoral role would have been interesting.

The Lady Vanishes

God bless the English! They may be insular, bringing their prejudices with them when traveling in foreign lands. They may be rigid when it comes to the venerable ritual of tea. They may be batty, like the dear old governess Miss Froy, last seen in the train compartment she shares with the heroine (before she vanishes), applying herself diligently to “a most intriguing acrostic in The Needlewoman.”

But, by George, you can count on them in a pinch! Balkan villains are no match for the sharp-witted young couple played by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. As for slippery Italian escape artists and haughty Middle-European aristocrats, not to worry. When times get tough, even the cricket-obsessed pair, Charters and Caldicott, prove themselves handy with a pistol.

“The Lady Vanishes” is a film to watch when you’re snowed in, or recovering from the flu. Settle down with a nice cup of tea and enjoy the leisurely pace of Hitchcock’s picture —the very last he would make in England. It’s almost as if he knew that the world he was depicting on the very eve of World War II would vanish, like dear Miss Froy. This would be his last chance to celebrate it, and perhaps also to prod his countrymen out of their complacency.

England and all she stood for was threatened. Danger lurked behind the most innocuous facades; nothing was as innocent as it seemed. She would soon demand sacrifices of her citizens, but like Charters and Caldicott, they would rise to the challenge.

Rule, Britannia!