Vittorio De Sica was one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers when, in 1952, David O. Selznick commissioned Terminal Station (Stazione Termini, 1954) from him and his screenwriting partner, Cesare Zavattini. The film would be a gallant experiment in combining Italy’s internationally celebrated neorealist movement, which De Sica and Zavattini had helped to invent with The Children Are Watching Us (I Bambini ci guardano, 1944), Shoeshine (Sciuscià, 1946), and The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette, 1948), with the glamorous presence of two Hollywood stars, Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. With the unlikely team of neorealist master Roberto Rossellini and former Selznick star Ingrid Bergman then functioning at its height the following year (1953, would see the release of the most beautiful and most paradoxical of their collaborations, Voyage to Italy), the idea did not seem so far-fetched. Perhaps, just as many stars now feel compelled to appear in at least one Dogme or Dogme-derived film, the ambitious actors of the early fifties—and Clift was certainly among them—were drawn to the purity and simplicity of the neorealist movement, which struggled to achieve a sense of social reality by filming in unadorned locations, avoiding the overt signs of Hollywood emotional manipulation, and giving actors an unusual degree of freedom in creating their performances.
Alas, things did not work out that way with Terminal Station. Selznick, his Hollywood career essentially over, was deeply into his period of European exile. Though The Third Man (1949) had been a critical and commercial success, his next European production, Gone to Earth (1950), had been marked by constant quarrelling with director Michael Powell and cowriter Emeric Pressburger, and Selznick eventually took over the film himself, creating a drastically reedited and reshot (by Rouben Mamoulian) version titled The Wild Heart for the American market. Selznick battled with De Sica as well, both on the set and after De Sica had delivered his 89-minute cut. Selznick went back to the editing room, and with the help of the editor Jean Barker and writer Ben Hecht produced his own version of the film, luridly retitled Indiscretion of an American Wife and reduced to 64 minutes. (When Columbia Pictures released Indiscretion in the U.S. in 1954, the program included a stylish musical short, Autumn in Rome, directed by the great art director William Cameron Menzies and photographed by James Wong Howe, in which Patti Page performed two songs “inspired" by the film, in order to bring the picture up to standard feature length. That short is also included on this DVD.)
Happily, both versions of the film survive, and this DVD offers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast Hollywood and European sensibilities as they existed in the early 1950s. While the De Sica version is immeasurably superior to the Selznick, both have quite distinct emotional and dramatic qualities, and it is fascinating to see how identical material can be pushed and pulled, wholly through the postproduction process, in two radically different directions.
Terminal Station remains essentially true to the neorealist principles De Sica and Zavattini established in The Bicycle Thief. Shot almost entirely within Rome’s Stazione Termini (as it is known in Italy), a cold, inhumanly scaled Fascist-era creation, and written to allow the action to unfold in real time (the film begins slightly before 7P.M. and ends a little after 8:30), De Sica’s film has a sturdy, realist base that even the Dior gown worn by Jennifer Jones (as a Philadelphia housewife!) cannot completely undermine. True as well to the movement’s social agenda, De Sica populates his train station with a wide cross-section of types and classes, ranging from desperately impoverished peasants to the president of the republic. Many minor figures—waiters, conductors, policemen—are given dialogue and a stroke or two of characterization, instead of remaining the mute extras—extraneous to the story—that they would in most Hollywood films. The Selznick version almost completely eliminates these small character asides, insisting that Jones and Clift are the only people really worth paying attention to in the entire station.
Selznick’s most radical intervention occurs in the film’s introductory sequences. In the De Sica cut, we see Jones approaching the apartment where her Italian lover (well, half Italian—Clift attributes his perfect English to his American mother) is waiting for her. She panics, realizing that there may be no turning back from what she is about to do, and runs impulsively to the station, where she attempts to write a telegram explaining her decision to Clift. The sequence is fraught with guilt, anxiety, and desire; there is a strong implication that the two have already had sex, and Jones is afraid that further physical intimacy, which she clearly desires, would lead to an irrevocable decision to abandon her older husband and young daughter back in the states.
These sequences are lopped off by Selznick, leaving the Jones character with no effective inner life when we first meet her, bustling to her train as if her decision had already been made. Where the De Sica film is characterized by the great fragility and vulnerability of the protagonists (specialties of both Jones and Clift), the Selznick version presents her as rather cold and indifferent to her clinging, whiny lover, who ultimately seems little more mature that Jones’ fourteen-year-old nephew, Paul (Richard Beymer in an early role), who burns with puppy love for his glamorous aunt.
The alterations are not simply formal and dramatic: Selznick and his editor have also performed a subtle ideological shuffle. Where Terminal Station finds its meaning and suspense in the unresolved, irresolvable conflict between personal romantic fulfillment and family obligation, Selznick has simply squelched the choice. Jones’ unseen daughter is far more present in Selznick’s film, through visual and verbal references; a brief scene in the De Sica, in which Jones hands out chocolate to three hungry Italian children, has been expanded into a gruesomely sentimental passage in which the children’s eyes glow with wonder and delight as this American fairy godmother distributes her largesse. This seems all the more remarkable given that De Sica was no stranger to sentimentalism himself, as The Bicycle Thief grandly demonstrates.
Terminal Station is perhaps the last true neorealist film in De Sica’s career before he slipped into the broad comedy of Marriage Italian Style (Matrmonio all’Italiana, 1964) and the middle brow muddle of Sunflower (Girasoli, 1970) and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, 1970). And for Selznick, too, something was coming to an end: after only one more Europudding production, the lugubrious A Farewell to Arms (1957), Selznick released no further films, and died in 1965 of a heart attack. As he’d always feared, Gone with the Wind remained his monument. But he left several other worthy works behind him, of which the underappreciated and largely unseen Terminal Station is one of the most significant.
Dave Kehr writes about movies for The New York Times and other publications.