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Indiscretion of an American Wife/Terminal Station: The Criterion Collection

The hand of David O. Selznick; oh, how it guided, coddled, encouraged, molded, meddled and destroyed. Sometimes, these creative clashes were good for the material, with the off-camera squabbles getting sublimated into the material, thus igniting the screen with a wild, desperate intensity brought about by the extreme duress the memo-writing moviemaker could instill in his charges. But as the old bulldog got older, his eye for material began to blur, while his collaborations with his directors grew more tumultuous, often leading to the unraveling of the film's artistic integrity. Nowhere was this more clearly the case than with Vittorio De Sica's Terminal Station, or, as Selznick would sordidly rechristen it, Indiscretion of an American Wife. If only a mere title change constituted the extent of the producer's alterations. Scared to death of disastrous test-screening results back in the States, where audiences hooted and howled at the film's heightened melodrama, Selznick chopped De Sica's hour-and-a-half cut of the film down to a threadbare 63 minutes, padding it out to a more acceptable feature length of 71 minutes by tacking on what was, essentially, an early precursor to the music video, featuring Patti Page warbling a pair of Paul Weston/Sammy "The Master" Cahn numbers — "Autumn in Rome" and "Indiscretion" — in an extravagant Manhattan apartment designed and lit beautifully by, respectively, William Cameron Menzies and James Wong Howe. "Extravagance" is a key word here, as is "naturalism"; the former being favored by the producer, with the latter, particularly as it regards the human element, being the domain of the neorealist master at the film's helm. Doubtlessly inspired by the popular success of De Sica's and his co-writer Cesare Zavattini's Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, and Miracle in Milan (though being forced, a bit unexpectedly, to absorb the thorough failure of Umberto D. as they went into production), Selznick hired the award-winning duo to concoct a story about a well-to-do Philadelphia housewife, Mary Forbes (played by the producer's wife, Jennifer Jones), frantically attempting to sever a torrid, month-long affair she has carried on with a gorgeous young Italian, Giovanni Doria (Montgomery Clift, who is wisely written as "Half-American" on his mother's side), while visiting her sister's family in Rome. The whole film was shot on location in the titular Stazione Termini, an opulent and cavernous structure that afforded De Sica and his regular cinematographer, G.R. Aldo, ample opportunity to conjure up an evocatively shot microcosm of judgment and shame against which the two illicit lovers quarrel and reconcile and quarrel again. The tension of the tale is built around Mary's vacillation over whether she should return home to her family or discard her husband and whisk away her daughter to live in Rome with her and Giovanni. In other words, it is, as Selznick would later allow, a real-time third act stretched out over 90 minutes. To address the film's inherent structural anomaly, and tailor it to his blunter sensibilities, Selznick, along with those aforementioned additions, lopped off much of the characters' (and, to a lesser extent, the affair's) backstory, while removing the many minor periphery characters sprinkled throughout by De Sica in favor of focusing solely on Mary and Giovanni.

*          *          *

As was the case with Selznick late in his career, his once-unerring instincts were way off; those seemingly wispy embellishments combine to make De Sica's Terminal Station a much more interesting failure than Indiscretion of an American Wife. Though still falling prey to the geographic and temporal pitfalls of the script (befuddling conundrums that result in too many scenes of Giovanni forlornly wandering train platforms, and a hilariously contrived arrest late in the film meant to raise the stakes for the increasingly distraught Mary), De Sica's cut is blessed with his unfailing ability to create a vividly realistic atmosphere by surrounding his main characters with, and briefly averting his focus to, the kinds of idiosyncratic folks that surely would've peopled that train station back in the early '50s. He also leaves in some crucial character development, such as Mary's anguished composition of a letter that is never sent, while establishing more palpably a playful rapport between the characters that allows the viewer to better understand why these two were drawn to each other in the first place. De Sica can't fix Truman Capote's tin-eared dialogue, which must've contributed to the test audience's rejection of the romance, but he does manage to coax splendid performances out of his leads, with Clift's trademark intensity finding a peculiar, sometimes jarring, but nonetheless intriguing home in the pathetic guise of Giovanni, while Jones turns in probably her most expressive and emotionally complicated work as Mary (check out the remarkable range of emotions that flash on her face after her first train leaves the station.) Their struggle against the material is far more interesting and admirable in De Sica's cut. The Criterion Collection presents Indiscretion of an American Wife and Terminal Station in full-frame transfers (1.33:1) with monaural Dolby Digital audio. Indiscretion is the better restored of the two, with G.R. Aldo's sumptuous cinematography looking more marvelous than ever. Terminal Station, on the other hand, was clearly struck from a more rugged print, but, though the sound is a little quivery on occasion, it's still a fully acceptable transfer with no distracting blemishes. Still, even if the print was in worse shape, Criterion would still have to be commended for putting these two versions of the troubled film back-to-back as a very tangible lesson on the differences between Hollywood and European sensibilities, and how their intersection can result in the kind of artistic compromise that remains notable for brief flashes of uncommon brilliance without ever being at all involving or, in the end, good. Extras on the disc include a commentary on Indiscretion of an American Wife from film historian Leonard Leff, who provides engagingly dishy context that helps explain what drove this production off the rails. Also included is a thoughtful written defense of Terminal Station by critic David Kehr, publicity sketches and original newspaper ads, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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