Sep. 19, 2009
Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953)
Grade: 76/100

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Stars: Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift, Dick Beymer

How I felt about it. Here is a curiosity: an English language movie featuring two American movie stars, funded by an American producer, but set in Italy and filmed by a leading Italian director. It exists in two versions: the 90 minute Stazione Termini with Italian subtitles, and the 63 minute Indiscretion of an American Wife, distributed in America.

The movie was the brainchild of David O. Selznick, the mogul who had famously made Gone With the Wind and Rebecca in 1939 and 1940. In the dozen-plus years since, Selznick became the manager of Jennifer Jones, formerly Phyllis Isley and the wife of actor Robert Walker. Selznick placed Jones into the lead role in The Song of Bernadette, a wonderful 1943 film that transformed her into a moviestar. More successful films followed, most of them produced by Selznick and all made as vehicles for the radiant Jones. Jones divorced Walker in 1945, but Selznick delayed his divorce until 1949, presumably for financial reasons. Selznick and Jones then married, and he continued to closely oversee her film career until it flagged in the late 1950s.

Indiscretion of an American Wife is about a woman (Jones) visiting relations in Italy. She falls under the spell of an intense young man (Clift). She must choose between him and her present life as wife and mother. This is also a choice between affluence and poverty, since Clift has nothing to offer her except romantic promises.

Jones was ideal as a romantic lead, although she projected such seriousness that her films tended to be tragedies. In the present movie, she was perhaps unfortunately paired with Montgomery Clift, an actor even more serious than herself. But he was a red-hot property after A Place in the Sun, and Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica was highly regarded following The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. This combination of leads and director resulted in a duly high quality, but unsurprisingly depressing movie, so slow and sad that it is difficult to watch, much less enjoy.

Naturally, Selznick has been vilified for slashing nearly a third of the running time from De Sica's cut. I have not seen the director's version (available on the Criterion video release) but apparently it focused too much on supporting Italian characters at the expense of Jennifer Jones, whose lovely visage was certainly of greatest interest to Selznick. The film's title was changed for similar reasons. The De Sica version was filmed in real time, then in vogue because of High Noon.

Jones comes off well, coming to the aid of an ill third class passenger burdened with three small children and a fourth that is on the way. In De Sica fashion, the peasant bears her burdens nobly. Her husband is gracious and the children are well behaved. The only jerk here is Clift, who wants to remove Jones from her comfortable (albeit mildly disappointing) married life to live with her in a workman's villa that lacks running water. She would likely lose contact with her young daughter, and Clift is already admitting that he will physically abuse her. But it is his intensity, however misguided, that is compelling to Jones.

Indiscretion of an American Wife is also interesting for the presence of young teenager Richard Beymer, who later played Tony in the blockbuster West Side Story. Beymer's character is a nephew to Jones, but he has an emotional attachment to her that compares with a schoolboy crush on a teacher.

Truman Capote, best known for In Cold Blood, is credited as a dialogue writer. It was his first film credit, and Selznick must have been pleased, since he also served as a writer on Jones' next film project, Beat the Devil.