Filmmaking versus Hollywood

If you’re like me, you hate today’s Hollywood movies. If you’ve recently turned your back on the multiplex and are seeking better films to watch, may I recommend neorealism? Neorealism emerged in Italy with the end of fascist rule and World War II. Its films focused on the lives of the working class and poor. It brought a radically democratic approach that rejected the “star-vehicle” model and the escapism that governed (and still govern) American studio productions. Many of its finest moments involved non-professional actors depicting life in neighborhoods where they actually lived. Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti were two pioneers of the movement, which has only increased in relevance during the current dire age of big-studio movies and theater-chain releases. Neorealism is the perfect antidote to corporate Hollywood idiocy.

But on one film project, those two opposites collided. In 1952-3, Vittorio De Sica, another creator of Italy’s vivid new type of cinema, made a movie based on Cesare Zavattini’s story Terminal Station. Zavattini was an advocate of neorealism and had written several of its greatest films, often with De Sica directing. De Sica put together a plan to bring American actors to Italy to make the movie, which dealt with the break-up of a romance. Montgomery Clift signed on to play the male lead.

There was a problem. De Sica and his company had partnered with Columbia Pictures and Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick. Selznick is best known for producing a melodrama/KKK-recruitment-film (a tearjerker/cross-burner, if you will) called Gone with the Wind. Selznick sent De Sica a constant stream of notes telling him how to direct. The director refused to follow those commands and Terminal Station was released to audiences outside the U.S. in 1953. It is a memorable film, if not as strong as De Sica’s best films, The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. But those latter two rank among the greatest films ever made.

Things got worse for Terminal Station after it was completed. Selznick had final cut over the American release and he decided to do a lot of final cutting. The Hollywood boss reduced the film’s running time from 89 minutes to 64 and tried to gin up business by changing the title to Indiscretion of an American Wife. In an attempt to keep viewers from feeling cheated (at least in terms of running time per dollar), Selznick tacked on a musical short called Autumn in Rome. Selznick was then married to Terminal Station’s female lead, Jennifer Jones, but flicker schlock was clearly his first love.

In this video essay for Sight & Sound, writer/filmmaker kogonada compares Terminal Station with Indiscretion of an American Wife. He uses split-screen visuals to great effect, allowing De Sica’s film to keep running on the left while Selznick’s version remains frozen on its cut point at right. That contrast allows kogonada to offer insights about Hollywood and, more importantly, neorealism. He says:

What Selznick sees as waste and excess becomes the essence of a different kind of cinema and sensibility, in which shots linger and veer off to include others, in which in-between moments seem to be essential, in which time and place seem more critical than plot or story.

Looking back on it, I guess American moviegoers should have been glad that Selznick let them see any of De Sica’s film. He might have decided to shoot his own version in Hollywood. In fact, can we be sure the producer didn’t do just that? When I saw this footage at the Internet Archive, I couldn’t help thinking that it was Selznick’s buried version of Terminal Station, mislabeled for all these years. At any rate, I believe it encapsulates Selznick’s vision and sensibility.

Take a look and see if you agree.