By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Throw keys to transient.
Karen Stone (Vivien Leigh) is an aging actress who is no longer getting the top roles like she used to. She and her husband decide to travel off to Rome for a retreat, but instead he dies of a fatal heart attack while on the plane. Karen then decides to remain in Rome where she leases a luxurious apartment, but becomes lonely and starts feeling insecure about her desirability. She meets Contessa Madga (Lotte Lenya) who is known in the area with setting up young men with lonely rich older women. She sets Karen up with Paolo (Warren Beatty) a dashing young gigolo who is only attracted to Karen because of her money and the belief that she will pay him to be her lover while Contessa will get a cut of the profit. Karen does give Paolo a ‘salary’, but remains under the delusion that eventually he will fall in love with her for real.
Although the story moves along at a slow and plodding pace and there is little if any action I still found myself captivated. The script is based on a novel by Tennessee Williams and somehow his stuff always remains strong drama no matter how talky it may appear. The characters and their situations are real. Their fragility and desperation are things many people can sometimes find themselves facing and therefore it makes an impact.
The sets are excellent. Karen’s apartment has a nice mixture of elegance and airiness. I also liked the recreation of the streets of Rome that was done inside a sound stage. Normally I prefer on-location shooting, but when the sets are built in such a meticulous way it becomes almost mesmerizing.
Leigh, in her second to last film role, is solid as usual. Some may complain that she is playing a part that is too similar to her Oscar winning role of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and to some extent they have a point. It almost seemed like Leigh in her later career was becoming a bit of a caricature, but she does it so well that it is a treat nonetheless. Just watching the way she moves her eyes as she gazes at Paolo secretly flirting with another woman is memorable.
Beatty is equally good. He speaks with an authentic sounding Italian accent and has a tanned complexion. This was the role that established him as a leading man and worth seeking out for his fans.
Lenya is engaging as the wicked Contessa. Most viewers today will know her best as the villainess Rosa Klebb in the classic James Bond film From Russia to Love. I always felt that she was one of the best Bond villains, but the amazing thing is that here she ends up being almost as menacing though in a more subtle way. She exudes evilness with clarity that is both impressive and creepy.
Jill St. John is terrific as Barbra Bingham a younger, more attractive actress who makes no secret about her desire to take-over from Karen’s now fading spotlight. Her bratty, haughty behavior is effectively on-target. Apparently Leigh like her character felt intimidated by St. John’s youthful beauty and refused to say even one word to her during the production.
My only real complaint is with the ending. Paolo abandons Karen and so in a fit of desperation she throws her apartment keys down to a transient who has been stalking her during most of the movie. The next shot has the homeless man entering the apartment and walking towards the camera, but then it fades and we are left to wonder what happened. Supposedly at the time just having a woman throw her keys down to some strange man on the street was considered shocking enough, but I wanted more of a conclusion. Did he kill her, or did they have sex and then start some sort of weird relationship? These are interesting questions that I felt should have been answered and the story’s ambiguity is frustrating.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: December 28, 1961
Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes
Rated NR (Not Rated)
Director: Jose Quintero
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: VHS, DVD