Sunday, December 12, 2010


Roberto Rossellini's breakthrough style-defining film marks the beginning of the "renaissance" described in Tino Balio's new book. Balio's renaissance lasts 27 years, its endpoint being the last big art-house hit of the era, Last Tango in Paris. But he also notes a fact that makes 1973 an almost too artistically correct end to the era. Open City premiered in New York City at the World Theater on West 49th Street. Twenty-seven years later, the same venue, now the New World Theater, opened Deep Throat.

Consider some other juxtapositions. Balio's book describes the distributors who got into the art-film business. Astor Pictures, for instance, brought Fellini's La Dolce Vita to America and scored a blockbuster hit. If the Astor name sounds familiar to some readers, that might be because some of its other presentations were Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon. By 1961, when Astor released the Fellini film, the company was consciously going upscale. But the relationship between art-house cinema and exploitation doesn't always go in one direction. For instance, Distributors Corporation of America released Henry-George Clouzot's classic thriller, The Wages of Fear, in 1955, along with other foreign product for the art houses. In 1959, DCA distributed Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Independent distributors serviced theaters that weren't part of the major corporate-owned (if no longer studio-owned) chains. They serviced theaters starving for product as the studios reduced production in the age of television. Theaters struggling for survival sought new product for new audiences. The obvious option was to find films that showed what Hollywood would not or could not. You could go art-house to attract an upscale audience or grindhouse to get the kids and the freaks. Art and exploitation should not be seen as opposite extremes flanking the happy medium of Hollywood tastefulness. Instead, they share a zone of exclusion defined by Hollywood tastefulness and prevailing censorship standards -- the Production Code, the Legion of Decency, local censorship boards, etc. Many chain theaters wouldn't show anything missing the Code seal or condemned by the Legion of Decency. Others took their chances with local censors and hyped the transgressiveness of their product, whether art or trash.

Discussing Open City, Balio points out how the film's original American distributor, the Mayer-Burstyn company, sold the Rossellini as an exploitation film in an effort to maximize its audience. It was billed as "Sexier than Hollywood dared to be," while newspaper advertising made the most of a Life magazine blurb touting the film's sexual frankness. The title of the film itself sent a variety of messages. As Italian critic Adriano Apra notes in an interview on the Criterion DVD, an open city in wartime means one exempt from bombing. The title becomes ironic once we're shown damage apparently done by an American bomber, but Apra infers added meanings: the availability of Rome for Rossellini's sprawling location work; the setting at the brink of liberation as metaphor for Italy's "open" future, and so on. To this, Balio adds implicit significance in Burstyn-Mayer's omission of Rome from the American edition of Roma, Citta Aperta. The bald title Open City, he notes, reminded 1940s Americans of what they called a "wide-open city" or "wide-open town," -- one where vice flourished freely due to incompetent or corrupt law enforcement.

While Joseph Burstyn of Burstyn-Mayer is a hero of Balio's book, a promoter of foreign film and a battler against censorship, Balio's account of the promotion of Open City treats it as, on some level, a misrepresentation of Rossellini's film. He might help his case if his otherwise liberally illustrated book used less movie stills and more of the advertising art whose importance he emphasizes repeatedly. Describing a Burstyn-Mayer Open City ad, he notes "fake publicity stills" of a lesbian embrace and a man being flogged. I'd have to see it to not believe it. After all, a man is flogged in the movie, and there is a lesbian embrace -- fully clothed, alas. Burstyn could have used frame enlargements, but maybe they wouldn't have been provocative enough. In any event, Balio's account begs a question: what sort of movie did Rossellini make? Was it "art" and not "exploitation," or could it be both?

Over the course of his book, Balio answers the question in general terms, noting repeatedly the link of sexual frankness or salacious content that put art and exploitation in a common category outside the Hollywood mainstream. He argues that the renaissance began to sputter out in the late 1960s, once Hollywood abandoned the Production Code and could compete in sexual frankness with foreign product and win with less pretension and greater relevance to the U.S. audience. I Am Curious (Yellow), the first foreign film to top La Dolce Vita's U.S. gross, pointed the way to survival for many remaining art-houses after 1968; by the 1970s, the word "Art" on a theater marquee almost certainly marked it as a porno house. It was that way in my hometown of Troy, New York. The American Theater, initially a second-run house, became the Cinema Art to spotlight foreign films; it survived into the 1990s with triple-bills of shot-on-video porn projected onto a big screen. There was probably purely prurient interest in art-house cinema from the very beginning, or else Burstyn wouldn't have advertised Open City as he did. While we may infer from Balio that there was a synthesis in America of art and exploitation, what about Italy? Would citta aperta have the same additional meaning for Rossellini and his home audience as it did for Americans?

By the time I watched Open City myself, I'd been inspired to buy the Rosselini War Trilogy box set by my reading of Balio's book -- and by Barnes & Noble's half-off sale on Criterion DVDs, not to mention a supplemental coupon that knocked the price down still further. My question going in was whether Burstyn, Balio or the original movie critics who made the film's reputation represented it accurately. What impressed me immediately was the ease with which the film I saw could fit Burstyn's exploitation framework. If the concept of a "wide-open city" didn't necessarily exist in those words in Italy, Rossellini did juxtapose the Italian resistance with a Roman demimonde represented by Marina (Maria Milchi), the nightclub performer (stripper?) who is a drug addict embroiled in a lesbian affair with a German Gestapo officer who keeps her in the junk. Marina will rat out her former boyfriend, Giorgio Manfredi, the fugitive communist whose pursuit by the Germans and their Italian collaborators forms the plot of the film.

Open City was misrepresented to Americans to the extent that the advertising presents Marina as the main character of the film. But Marina is certainly an important character, and probably the most photogenic. She represents the wrong path Italians could take under occupation. She protests that, by becoming a prostitute, she's only doing what "every woman" has had to do to survive. She's also unrepentant -- until she sees Giorgio's fate -- scoffing at a fellow dancer's advice that drugs are bad for her. Lots of things are bad for us, Marina says, but we do them anyway. It's almost as if the war and occupation were a perverse liberation into licentiousness for her, so that Rome is a different kind of "open city" for her than it is for the other Roman characters. Marina represents a collaborative underground of vice that probably can't help but share space dangerously with the resistance underground. And here's a historical note for those keeping score at home: Maria Milchi would turn up nearly thirty years later in Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty, a key film in the Italian canon of Nazisploitation. An accident? Perhaps not, given her character's alliance with arguably the original lesbian Nazi villain in all cinema, Giovanna Galletti's Ingrid.

Notice how both these shots were used in the Strand theater ad above.

If you resist labelling Open City an exploitation film, you still have to admit that there are lots of exploitable elements in it to which future generations of Italian filmmakers would return. Meanwhile, you can make a case for Rossellini's film as ground zero for all Italian cinema to come, or at least the two great streams, if you must separate them, of art and exploitation. Crucial and formative here is Rossellini's presentation of violence. There are two big moments of violence in the film. One, the most famous for film historians, is the shooting of Pina (Anna Magnani) as she chases a truck carrying her fiancee, Giorgio Manfredi's brother, along with Giorgio and other victims. This scene is the cinematic equivalent of Robert Capa's famous snuff photo of a Spanish Civil War soldier buying it; it has the same out-of-nowhere abruptness and absence of stylization. We never see anyone fire on Pina. We hear a shot, and down Magnani goes in a gross tumble, dead the moment she hits the pavement. This stark, unmelodramatic framing, in a film that is not without melodrama (sometimes painfully highlighted by a score from Rossellini's brother) helped define "neorealism" for Italy and the world. It also comes with a grim irony trailing behind. Francesco will be liberated moments later by a partisan ambush.

The other big moment is the torture of Giorgio Manfredi, undertaken both to force him to talk and to terrify Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi, seen above over Magnani's body), a patriotic priest, into talking. Structurally, this is the climax of the film. Skimming through it a second time to harvest screencaps, I noticed how many times Rossellini films Don Pietro waiting at a threshold for something or someone; at the curio shop where he priggishly moves some statues so a saint isn't looking at a nude; at a printing press, where he will receive books printed with thousand-lira notes for smuggling to the partisans. At the climax, the Gestapo seats him in an adjoining room so he can watch through an open door as Giorgio is beaten, flogged (see!) and burned with a blowtorch. It's as if the priest is meant to wait for Giorgio to break, or for his own turn to be tortured. In earlier scenes he'd been waiting to meet someone or be shown something. Now he and we are shown what is clearly intended as an ultimate revelation of Nazi cruelty.

Adriano Apra has something significant to say about this scene on the DVD:

One of the great innovations in this film -- and it's precisely in the torture scene -- is a particlar moment in which Major Bergmann forces Don Pietro to watch the torture ....and this shot/countershot of Fabrizio watching the torture scene marks a new point in cinema. Viewers are no longer called upon to merely observe a world of appearances. They're forced to watch something deeply upsetting, something that wounds them inside. Cinema now wounds us. It's no longer just entertainment we can watch comfortably in our seats. It's something that involves us directly.

It's as if the torture scene is the fount from which flows not just the neorealist tradition, not just Fellini (a co-writer of the film), De Sica, Visconti, etc., but also the exploitation tradition of in-your-face shock, the tradition of Mario Bava and the giallo directors, of Mondo movies, of Ruggero Deodato and Cannibal Holocaust, not to mention the work of someone like Pier Paolo Pasolini who traveled down both streams at once. If Open City seems to mix art and exploitation, that's probably because it predates any real differentiation in Italy. The country is often said not to have a real horror-film tradition, after all, before the mid-1950s, though it would soon prove a cornucopia or hellmouth of exploitation subgenres, all arguably authorized by Rossellini's show-don't-tell approach to Giorgio's interrogation.

Exploitation is often defined by excess, but for many original audiences Open City's torture scene was excessive. Excess can be determined by prevailing standards of taste as well as by censorship codes; in France, for instance, Balio notes the nouvelle vague's rebellion against a "Tradition of Quality" perceived as oppressively tasteful. The New Wave films, in turn, were sold here on sex appeal as much as possible, with Jean-Luc Godard himself ordered by Joseph E. Levine to add butt-shots of Brigitte Bardot to Contempt. It was easier, after all, to sell sex than style. There were other approaches -- Balio describes in detail Janus Films' successful cultivation of the "brand" of Ingmar Bergman, who'd been subjected to sexploitative promotion earlier in his career -- but the shortcut to success seemed always to be emphasizing what foreign films could show that Hollywood couldn't or wouldn't. In Open City's case there was objective truth to the advertising; Hollywood in 1946 wouldn't show a flame flickering on a man's bare chest. It would not hint so strongly that two women were lesbian lovers. That was the strength of foreign film from the viewpoint of American distributors and exhibitors, and Balio is absolutely right to define Open City as the start of an era when art, if you will, was, if you will, eminently exploitable.

There's more to Balio's story, of course. Along with a survey of important distributors, The Foreign Film Renaissance chronicles the reception of now-canonical imports, emphasizing the make-or-break importance of a handful of reviewers. The book makes a strong case, whether Balio intends it or not, for a reappraisal of the career of Bosley Crowther. For generations, Crowther, the onetime lead film reviewer of the New York Times, was a byword for philistinism, remembered most for finally ruining his career by refusing to endorse that Sacre du Printemps of American cinema, Bonnie and Clyde. Much of the resentment of Crowther I've seen among other critics prior to his 1967 debacle was probably based on his perceived power to close a foreign film with a pan. For Balio, however, Crowther plays a crucial role in legitimizing foreign film as a champion of Open City and a supporter of Joseph Burstyn in his battles against censorship. Whatever he became by the Sixties, Crowther in the Forties was some kind of vanguard figure. Subsequently, Balio recounts a mixed record, noting a social-realist bias on Crowther's part that made him hostile toward stylistic experimentation and an occasionally obnoxious incomprehension of Asian film. To the end, however, Crowther would throw his support behind those foreign films he deemed worthy, doing his part to perpetuate the renaissance even as he seemed to suppress its full scope. Crowther's disrepute is so complete that he was excluded from the Library of America anthology of American film criticism, but Balio's book suggests that at least a partial rehabilitation is in order.

While Balio's is now my favorite film book of 2010, I do have some criticisms. I've already noted the absence of advertising art that would help prove some of his points. I also wish that Balio had put the fate of canonical art films in the context of foreign-film importation in general, including pop and "true" exploitation movies. He nods in that direction by noting the success of Godzilla and Brigitte Bardot, but I missed any in-depth discussion of Hercules films, spaghetti westerns and other genre efforts as part of the massive Italian onslaught on U.S. screens during the 1960s. It would have been instructive to see statistics on the number of foreign films released in the U.S. year by year, broken down by nationality, to learn what Americans were really interested in from abroad. Space limitations as well as a bias in favor of "art" over "exploitation" probably determined Balio's priorities.

At the same time, Balio's book tempered my appreciation of the Criterion Open City. Understandably, the DVD represents a heroic reconstruction of the film from "disastrous" source materials and looks as good as possible. But it was the version released by Burstyn Mayer that made history in America, and for historical reasons that version, if it still exists, ought to have been included in an admittedly ample Rossellini package. The original reviewers probably saw something that didn't look as good as the disc, and their conflation of visual defects with spartan virtues may have influenced the American understanding of neorealism. A full-scale cleanup arguably strips a layer of romanticized grit that actually defined the film for generations, making it perhaps as controversial a project as those cleanings of paintings from the original Italian Renaissance that make them look too clean or bright for some eyes. Again, including the U.S. release version would have given buyers cakes for having and eating as far as comparative aesthetics go. As it is, the movie was a surprise for me, since I expected from its reputation something much more stark and minimalist than what I got. Indeed, the original reviewers often commented on how conventional or derivative the actual story was, while I've already noted the banal soundtrack. I actually give the story more credit, but I've seen far fewer Nazis-vs-good guys pictures recently than 1946 reviewers had, so I'm less jaded about the subject than they probably were. For viewers possibly jaded by modern levels of violence or sexual frankness, the Criterion supplemental materials do a good job of clarifying the film's historical importance, but I think most people would still consider it a good film, if a bleak one, anyway.

Balio admits that foreign films can still make a mint in America, though it's hard to say whether Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tops La Dolce Vita when you adjust for inflation. What's lost now, he claims, is the movement of film buffs that helped fuel the 1946-73 renaissance, the sense that milestone films could change the way we see the world, or even change the world itself. Balio's renaissance was a romantic era for American art-film fans who could consider themselves ahead of the pack, above the rabble, for appreciating more sophisticated or exotic fare. Those who feel similarly edgy today, Balio notes, have ready access to DVDs, but as with every trend toward the privatization of experience, something seems missing at the home theater, just as reading this article isn't an exact substitute for us flocking out of the theater together to talk about the new film at the bar or the cafe. Maybe we can add an additional level of meaning to Open City by saying that it opened Americans to a cinematic cosmopolis they could visit regularly, claiming citizenship of the world in a way. If Balio is right, the films remain but the city is dead. Decide for yourselves.


Sam Juliano said...

"Open City premiered in New York City at the World Theater on West 49th Street. Twenty-seven years later, the same venue, now the New World Theater, opened Deep Throat"

LOL Samuel!!! Times changing and all that!!!

I do hope cineastes get over to this plasce ASAP, as opnce again you have penned an astonishing essay that fully serves those interesting and/or enamored of this neo-realist landmark. Your discussion (and screen cap display) of the film's most famed sequences of violence and the issue of exploitation are fascinating, and your framing of the film artistically and especially historically is as thorough as even a reading of Balio's volume would yield!

Interesting too that your estimation of the film was tempered by Balio, and I'm not yet ready to imagine a change of heart, until those words pass before my own eyes.

Your discussion too of "misrepresentation" is eye-opening!

Fantastic work here!

Anonymous said...

Unless I'm mistaken, the Burstyn-Mayer print is the one used on the Australian DVD of the film, which I think itself came from an earlier American DVD edition (certainly the artwork did).

Ben said...

Great post - thanks for writing it. The strange space in which "arthouse" meets exploitation is usually my favourite place on the cinematic landscape, so I'm always fascinated to read accounts of the relationship between the two that don't sneer at popular/exploitation cinema, and you make some excellent points here.

It's about a decade since I watched "Rome: Open City"; it was screened for us when I did a brief course on Italian Neo-Realism at school, and I remember enjoying it a hell of a lot more than the other examples of the form... probably thanks to the conventional plot-line and exploitation elements that you mention. Would like to check it out again... and Balio's book for that matter.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I should clarify that Balio's book made me more critical toward the DVD and its lack of archival material from the Burstyn-Mayer release than toward the film itself. The US release version has obvious importance to film history and should have been covered in one of those video essays Criterion occasionally produces.

james, it wouldn't surprise me if Burstyn-Mayer still pops up in many places. According to Balio, there are actually two versions, a presumably uncut premiere edition and a general-release edition with some of the whipping and a shot of a toddler on a potty cut out. The story of Open City's dissemination worldwide could be as interesting as the saga of Metropolis.

Ben: thanks for writing. The symbiosis of art and exploitation fascinates me as well and Balio has a lot to say on how that worked on a commercial level. It's a must read for anyone interested in film history.

sunny south coast said...

I just came across this blog post which I really enjoyed, and was encouraged to read in the comments that the version of the film released in 1946 might still be findable. I'm studying the subtitles produced by Herman G. Weinberg (who collaborated on this film) and other early subtitlers, so I'll see if I can track it down! Meanwhile I've also written a piece about the reception of the subtitles in 1946-47 - it's at