The 1954 film “Indiscretion of an American Wife” suffers from an identity crisis. It’s also a prime example, perhaps even a cautionary tale, of a powerful producer clashing with a world-renowned director and coming up with a product nobody is really happy with.
“Indiscretion” started life as “Stazione Termini,” directed by legendary Italian neorealist filmmaker Vittorio De Sica and featured Hollywood stars Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift, as a visiting American housewife and her Italian lover.
The film experienced problems from the get-go, from who was going to play the leads — Ingrid Bergman and Linda Darnell were considered for the housewife and Marlon Brando, Louis Jourdan, and Richard Burton, were considered for the Italian lover — to who would direct, produce and write the film.
Carson McCullers was originally set to write the screenplay, but she was fired by producer David O. Selznick (of “Gone With the Wind” fame) and a series of writers, including Paul Gallico, Alberto Moravia, Luigi Chiarini, Giorgio Prosperi, Cesare Zavattini, and, finally, Truman Capote, were brought on board.
Anytime there are five or more screenwriters listed, you’re going to have problems. And no doubt, the meddlesome Selznick and the creative De Sica more than likely had their share of input on the final script. And, although credited with co-writing the screenplay, Capote later said he only wrote two scenes for the film!
And that was before filming even started. Much of the conflict and confusion would come later, after De Sica’s 89-minute final product somehow morphed into Selznick’s Hollywood-ized 63-minute version titled “Indiscretion of an American Wife.” But more on that later.
“Stazione Termini” was supposed to be a showcase for Selznick’s wife Jones, but why he would pair a glamorous Hollywood actress with a decidedly non-glamorous Italian director, whose neorealist films were filmed in a more natural and realistic manner, with little studio work and utilizing actual locations and often amateur or non-actors, is anybody’s guess.
Jones, in particular, seemed like a fish out of water. She was still dealing with the death of her dear husband Robert Walker in 1951, was having problems with her two-year marriage to Selznick and was missing her two children with Walker. Jones, who was said to require a lot of direction to give a consistent performance, didn’t speak Italian and De Sica, who favored a more naturalistic, improvisational style of acting, didn’t speak a word of English.
To complicate things even more, Jones developed an attraction to Clift, but then found out the actor preferred men to women, sending her into a rage. In “’The Films of Montgomery Clift” by Judith M. Kass, Jones “reportedly became so overwrought that she stuffed a mink jacket down the toilet of a portable dressing room.”
It didn’t help matters much that Selznick and De Sica clashed constantly over the direction and tone of the film, with Selznick sending De Sica 40- and 50-page letters discussing the film on a daily basis, even though De Sica could not read English. De Sica would agree with Selznick, then just do what he wanted to do.
After De Sica delivered his 89-minute film “Stazione Termini,” Selznick took it and reduced it to 63 minutes and made it look like a slick Hollywood romance wherein Jones’ housewife was tempted by infidelity, but doesn’t succumb — all to preserve Jones’ pristine reputation.
Clift was particularly incensed by Selznick’s truncated version, whose title was changed to “Indiscretion of an American Wife,” calling it “a big fat failure.”
The edited film was so short of feature length that Selznick had to add a prologue featuring Patti Page, who was making her film debut, singing two songs, “Autumn in Rome” and “Indiscretion.”
The great New York Times critic Bosley Crowther capped his review of “Indiscretion” with: “The picture is prefaced, we should warn you, by what can only be termed a juke-box short.”
The reviews of “Indiscretion” were not exactly scathing, more like indifferent, although De Sica’s original version received more acclaim in later years. Both films were released together by film preservationists Criterion Collection on DVD, allowing film buffs to compare the two versions.
“This new film of Signor De Sica implies nothing but a personal mistake,” writes Crowther, reviewing “Indiscretion.” “The crisis may be no less painful for the individual involved, but for the ordinary person who sees it, it has small significance.”
And film fans hoping for a romantic vision of Rome with two attractive American leads frolicking in all the familiar Rome landmarks, would be severely disappointed. The film takes place almost entirely at Stazione Termini, the railroad station of the title. They’d be better off watching another 1953 film, “Roman Holiday,” the romantic comedy with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn directed by William Wyler or even 1954’s lighthearted “Three Coins in the Fountain” with Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire and Jean Peters. Rome has been better presented in a number of films since then. Even De Sica’s own “Bicycle Thieves” (often mistranslated as “The Bicycle Thief”) gives a better accounting of Rome, albeit a depressed post-World War II city trying to regain its glory.
Watch “Indiscretion of an American Wife” on MovieZoot.com.