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The Rose Tattoo

The Rose Tattoo
Paramount Home Entertainment
1955 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 117 min. / Street Date September 21, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Marisa Pavan, Ben Cooper, Virginia Grey, Jo Van Fleet, Sandro Giglio
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Art Direction Tambi Larsen, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Alex North
Written by Hall Canter and Tennessee Williams from his play
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Daniel Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Yet another play adaptation from Paramount in the middle 50s, this Hal Wallis production may be the cream of the crop. Anna Magnani won an Oscar and everyone else in the show is excellent, including the sometimes denigrated Burt Lancaster. Two hours of intense swings in mood and tone, Tennessee Williams' symbol-laden ode to love The Rose Tattoo is an emotionally wrenching experience.


Serafina Delle Rose (Anna Magnani) goes on a three-year misery binge after the death of her 'perfect' husband Rosario, letting herself fall to pieces and abusing the neighbors. Worst off is her own daughter Rosa Delle Rose (Marisa Pavan), for Serafina expresses her denial of her husband's infidelity by being unduly severe with her, even when her new boyfriend is the equally innocent sailor Jack Hunter (Ben Cooper). While Rosa yearns to run wild with abandon, Serafina finally has to question her own intentions when she's unaccountably attracted to Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Burt Lancaster), a clownish free spirit who sweeps her off her feet - almost.

Although there are plenty of Italian movies featuring Anna Magnani unseen in America, this is the one to go to in the English language. She's a superb actress, coming off as a genuinely frowzy mess and then blooming from time to time into a uniquely earthy beauty all her own.

The play is an emotional rollercoaster shot through with a streak of poetic symbolism. Roses are everywhere as a substitute for the heart and the heart's love. Three people tattoo roses on their chests as marks of devotion or romantic hope. The rose on her husband's chest represents Serafina Delle Rose's illusions of perfection - he's her real religion. An urn of his ashes is her focus of worship. At one point she even recounts seeing the miraculous vision of a rose on her own chest.

All of the symbolism keeps The Rose Tattoo at a stylized theatrical level, even with the excellent Louisiana-Alabama setting and James Wong Howe's delicate but naturalistic B&W images. The convoluted plotline, which crams seven or eight tonal swings into 48 hours or so, is also a bit thick. Serafina descends like a slug into total depression, then becomes a vindictive and hurtful harridan, torturing her teenaged daughter. Then she recovers and has comedy scenes with a new gentleman. If it weren't for the excellence of the writing and playing, we wouldn't be buying any of it. Tennesee Williams also lays on the earthy content, with plenty of torn and dirty working-man's t-shirts, chasing goats in the yard. Etc. Burt Lancaster howls love calls to Serafina from atop a neighbor's boat, but it's not quite as powerful as Marlon Brando's wails of "Stella" in that other Williams work.

The story is very effective. We do care about Serafina and it's great to see her bloom (sorry for the Rose allusion) back to life under the influence of the bombastic, slightly foolish Alvaro. Modern PC types might chafe at the notion that what unhappy women of any stripe need is a good ****, but here Serafina's redemption is more complicated than that. Despite the speed of events, it doesn't seem too hasty.

It is an emotional ordeal however, with all the wailing and shouting. Even more moving is the plight of Serafina's daughter Rosa, beautifully played by Marisa Pavan. Rosa is so stifled and humiliated by her mother's misplaced protection that she rebels entirely - Serafina worries about the morals of Rosa's babyfaced sailor boyfriend, when Rosa herself is the threat. It was pretty unusual to find a teen character acting so forward and carnal in the 50s, and I hesitate to suggest that the arrangement was approved because Rosa is dark and Latin. Like it or not, Serafina drives the plot toward that moment we knew was coming ... the daughter running off with a boy to some unknown future, probably out of the mother's life forever.

Burt Lancaster is big and loud and good, even if it must be admitted that he isn't exactly nuanced - the bigger-than-life star persona gets in the way and we just don't believe he's as dumb as Alvaro is supposed to be. Marisa Pavan's role makes her look like a perfect Maria for West Side Story - as that came five years later, perhaps she was too old by then. Jo Van Fleet would appear the next year in producer Hal Wallis' Gunfight at the OK Corral as a similar female burnout case; her sharp-tongued floozy here puts even more reactionary ideas into Serafina's confused head.

Of special note is Ben Cooper, who does a great job as Jack Hunter, the boyish sailor who falls in love with an Italian girl at the high school dance. He has one of those clear-eyed faces that makes believable things like bowing to the Virgin Mary and swearing not to take advantage of Rosa. Cooper didn't have many good roles and this was a plum part. The other place to see him shine is in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar from the year before.

Paramount's DVD of The Rose Tattoo looks great in its enhanced dimensions, and may even have been mastered from VistaVision materials - one brief moment with some damage ripples from side to side instead of up and down (VistaVision film goes through the camera sideways). Picture and sound are close to perfect, and the widescreen framing helps make the settings look less boxy. Director Daniel Mann was never a visual stylist, but cameraman Howe takes up the slack.

Mickey Knox, the translator of the English versions of a couple of Sergio Leone movies, was Anna Magnani's longtime English dialogue coach. She never wanted to learn the language and much of her huge part in The Rose Tattoo was learned in parrot fashion, a remarkable achievement. It's too bad that Paramount has so little interest in DVD supplements, because there are still some great first-hand witnesses to the films of the 50s with memories that could enrich them greatly.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Rose Tattoo rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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