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Saturday Night Cinema: The Rose Tattoo

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Tonight's Saturday Night Cinema feature is the Rose Tattoo, starring Burt Lancaster. I could watch Lancaster in a Geico commercial, he is that good in everything, but Tennessee Williams wrote this play for Anna Magnani, so it's no surprise that hers is the stand-out performance in the film. Spectacular!

The New York Times on The Rose Tattoo (1955)

NYT Critics' Pick Anna Magnani Triumphs in 'Rose Tattoo'; Film Version of Play by Williams Opens Italian Star and Burt Lancaster Superb

THAT fine Italian actress Anna Magnani, whom American audiences know best from such fine Italian films as "Open City" and "The Miracle," has a triumphant field day in her first Hollywood and English-speaking film. It is "The Rose Tatoo," from the play of Tennessee Williams. It opened at the Astor last night.

They say that Mr. Williams wrote the play with Miss Magnani in mind. Her performance would indicate it, for she fits the role—or it fits her—like skin. As the robust Italian-born widow of a truck driver in an American Gulf Coast town, where she baffles her friends with her endless mourning and her Spartan watchfulness over her teen-age daughter who is ripe for love, she splays on the screen a warm, full-bodied, tragi-comic character. And she is grandly assisted by Burt Lancaster in the second lead—and the second half—of the film.

Note well that Mr. Lancaster does not appear until the tale is nigh half told. This has particular significance in the pattern of the film. For the first half of it is a somber and sometimes even morbid account of a woman's idolization of a dead husband who, everyone but she seems to know was unfaithful to her. And because Miss Magnani is so ardent and intense in conveying the bleakness of this grief, this whole segment of the picture has a curious oppressiveness, which is barely lightened by the squawling and brawling that she either excites or engineers.

It is in the second half of the picture—when Mr. Lancaster appears as an ebulliently cheerful but stupid trucker who wants to assist the widow to a little fun—that the dismal atmosphere starts clearing and "The Rose Tattoo" bursts into flower. And it is in this second half that Miss Magnani displays her talents most winningly.

Let us be candid about it: there is a great deal more happening inside the widow's psychological frame than either she understands or Mr. Williams has bothered to analyze in the play or film. It is clear that she has a strong sex complex which stems from a lot of possible things, including her deep religious training. This is not discussed and barely hinted on the screen. Thus one must make one's own decision about the character's complete validity and the logic of her eventual conversion to a natural life and the acceptance of her daughter's love affair.

But, logical or not, Miss Magnani makes the change from dismal grief to booming joy such a spectrum of emotional alterations and personality eccentricities that—well, who cares! She overwhelms all objectivity with the rush of her subjective force. From the moment she and her new acquaintance get together for a good old-fashioned weep (for no particular reason except that they are both emotional), and then go on to obvious courting in a clumsy, explosive, guarded way. Miss Magnani sweeps most everything before her. And what she misses Mr. Lancaster picks up.

The exquisiteness of these two as sheer performers—just for instance, the authority with which she claps her hand to her ample bosom or he snags a runaway goat—would dominate the picture, if the rest of the cast were not so good and Daniel Mann as the director did not hold them under tingling, taut control. Marisa Pavan as the sensitive, nubile daughter; Ben Cooper as the decent sailor whom she craves; Virginia Grey as a tawdry ex-mistress and Sandro Giglio as a gentle priest head a group of supporting players that gives this picture—much of which was shot in Key West—a quality of utter authenticity. Producer Hal Wallis has afforded it the best.

We can add only that Miss Magnani speaks English—with an accent—charmingly. Her widow may be a slight enigma, but she—with her eyes and those hands to lend eloquence to her expression—is not hard to understand.

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