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A couple of weeks ago I defended Stanley Kramer as a film director, citing his genuinely good end-of-the-world melodrama On the Beach. But ten years later, Kramer's brand of liberal outrage seemed way out of date. 1969's The Secret of Santa Vittoria came out a few months after Easy Rider had warped the filmgoing demographic. A reasonably competent comedy-drama, Santa Vittoria was more or less ignored. When audiences were flocking to the new look of pictures like Midnight Cowboy, everything about Kramer's family-safe picture seemed irrelevant,.
Not since It's a Mad 4 World had Kramer broken from his 'important social issue' mode. Santa Vittoria takes place in the ideological safety of a past conflict, where all that the citizens of an Italian town must worry about, is how to keep a million bottles of wine out of the hands of the occupying German forces.
When news of the ouster of Mussolini reaches the little town of Santa Vittoria, boisterous drunk Italo Bombolini (Anthony Quinn) rouses the citizenry to imprison the town's fascists. Elected the new mayor, Italo keeps the peace by offering meaningless official posts to everyone who might object. But he's still called a clown. Italo's wife Rosa Casamassima Bombolini (Anna Magnani) is so fed up with Italo's drinking that she throws him out. Not much later young Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini), the boyfriend of their daughter Angela (Patrizia Valturri), comes back from college with the news that the Germans are going to occupy the town. All fear that the Germans have come to seize the town's million-plus bottles of stored wine. Italo gets good advice from Tufa (Sergio Franchi), an army deserter hiding in the house of the wealthy Caterina (Virna Lisi), the widow of a fascist and a recent returnee. Tufa shows Italo how the wine can be hidden in an old Roman cave. The Germans arrive under the command of Capt. von Prum (Hardy Krüger), an efficient officer who is amused by Italo's servile cowardice. Prum happily appropriates the 300,000 bottles of wine that the town has set aside. All is well until the local SS arrives with information that the town should be hiding a million bottles more. A battle of wits begins.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is basically just fine -- it has big stars, nice music, a fairly involving story and beautiful color cinematography. But it is also slow, old-fashioned and predictable, and its stars are playing roles they've played many times before. Everything in it seems like a less exciting version of an earlier film. The Italians are envisioned as 'cute' peasants. The camera continually finds photogenic old faces to feature in close-up. Yet we see almost no children. A big Italian town with no children?
Main star Anthony Quinn shuffles through his entire repertoire of 'earthy peasant' behaviors. Bombolini is an insecure husband, a magnanimous drunk, a craven coward and endearingly protective of his daughter. He's potentially a good politician. He values the honor of his town highly, and wants to seen nobody suffer. The wine isn't just money, it is Santa Vittoria's pride, its life's blood. It's the only reason that the citizens get along at all. Quinn is eventually talking about "leading his people", which recalls his lusty Arab character from Lawrence of Arabia. 1
Anna Magnani is equally precise in her acting, whether browbeating Italo, losing her temper with her daughter or telling the German commander to his face that he's not welcome. Her role seems compartmentalized, in that her Rosa doesn't interact with most of the other characters. The young lovers are cute but are dropped from the story about 2/3 of the way through. The big surprise with them is how impossibly young future star Giancarlo Giannini looks.
Santa Vittoria still seems like a movie we've seen before. The most involving content is a sidebar subplot involving Virna Lisi, Sergio Franchi and Hardy Krüger. Lisi's Caternia moves the deserter Tufa into her house, and they fall in love just as Captain von Prum decides that taking Caterina to bed will serve as a good consolation prize for not finding a treasure of wine. Krüger is excellent, making Prum seem a halfway civilized fellow, yet not above taking caddish advantage of a good thing. Prum is also willing to kill when his SS overseers are watching. Pop singer Sergio Franchi and the devastatingly beautiful Virna Lisi (from Queen Margot, also reviewed today) are an attractive couple.
The cast is overloaded with Italian actors -- all men -- that have little to say or do. Eduardo Ciannelli is given a few expository lines. The amusing Leopoldo Trieste is wasted as a foolish yes-man. Renato Rascel, Marco Tulli (Beat the Devil) and Gigi Ballista mostly stand around like a chorus with nothing to sing. As he's no Vittorio De Sica, Stanley Kramer can't do much to make The Secret of Santa Vittoria special. His flat direction seems overly enchanted by the scenery. The fact that everybody speaks English kills any hope of an authentic feel. I saw only one moment that looked like a 'director's touch', and it was mildly offensive. A quasi-rape occurs, after which Kramer represents the conquest by cutting to a pretty flower being picked.
The answer is of course that Kramer and his two experienced writers are drawing upon ideas from movies already 25 years old. English screenwriter William Rose wrote some fine Brit comedy in the late '40s and '50s, especially the superb The Ladykillers. Rose's 1954 High and Dry is a variation on the Ealing hit Tight Little Island (Whiskey Galore), a hilarious comedy about small-town Scots hiding a boatload of liquor from the authorities. That movie is half as long and three times as funny as The Secret of Santa Vittoria. In the late 1940s Stanley Kramer almost teamed with RKO producer Val Lewton. One of Lewton's films was Mademoiselle Fifi, a story about a French seamstress during a Prussian occupation, who is offered to the lecherous German officer so her compatriots will be set free. Santa Vittoria's Virna Lisi - Hardy Krüger subplot is very similar. Although sourced from a novel, Kramer's movie still 'feels' like we've seen it before.
At 140 minutes, Santa Vittoria seems too long. There are good sitiuations and some great jokes, but too many scenes slowly get up to speed and then overstay their welcome. When a scene needs a bright finish, Anthony Quinn will dance about with his arms spread wide, Zorba- style.
The central conflict between Bombolini and Captain Prum is rather nicely worked out, and Italo does prove himself a worthy mayor. Even if the Germans seem unusually reasonable when told that there is no wine to be stolen, Kramer manages some tense moments near the finish. And when Quinn breaks into a final dance, we share his relief. But Santa Vittoria still feels like a 'lusty, heartwarming' tale that didn't quite come off.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a very good transfer of this sunny, bright show, originally released in Technicolor. Only a couple of moments reveal what looks like negative damage, where the color fluctuates for a brief second. Cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno keeps the camera wide, and doesn't contribute the same artistic sensibility he gave to Kramer's earlier On the Beach.
The clear audio flatters Ernest Gold's traditional, Italian flavored themes, auditable on a welcome Isolated Score Track. Co-star Sergio Franchi's voice is heard on the title track. Julie Kirgo's liner notes begin with a biographical celebration of the undeniably cool Anthony Quinn, followed by some interesting production notes. The original trailer is lively but doesn't make Santa Vittoria seem like a must-see. Little did Stanley Kramer know that in October '69 the adult & family audience he targeted were either looking for more radical movie fare, or stayed home to enjoy the security of their televisions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Secret of Santa Vittoria Blu-ray rates:
1. Two random notes -- repeatedly dissed as a clown, the drunken Bombolini is taken home in the back of an oxcart, just like the "King of the Fools" Quasimodo in several versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quinn played the part in one of them.
Also, Hardy Krüger and his Germans wear light gray Africa Corps - style uniforms suitable for the hot weather. All look perfectly cleaned and ironed. When walking around in his neat little gray cap, Krüger looks remarkably like one of the spacemen from Forbidden Planet.
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T'was Ever Thus.