By Kristin Battestella
All right, I confess it. Not all of Montgomery Clift’s films are award-winning classics of American cinema. Whether it goes by Terminal Station or Indiscretion of an American Wife, this one has its share of faults, indeed. Try not to get too confused.
American housewife Mary (Jennifer Jones) is leaving Rome and her month long romance with Giovanni (Clift). Though her home life was not perfect, she can’t imagine leaving her young daughter behind to grow up without her. Will this ill-conceived affair create a scandal at home? Despite their whirlwind and turbulent indiscretion, can Giovanni let Mary go?
Although both versions of director Vittorio De Sica’s (Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief) 1953 tale feel too short, the just over an hour American Release entitled Indiscretion of an American Wife is an edited mess. This is in my mind a better title, but there’s no time to be truly vested in Truman Capote’s (hello) purported adaptation from frequent De Sica writer Cesare Zavattini’s story. The action is smartly confined in and around the titular train station, and the turbulent love fairs somewhat better in the ninety-minute international edition, yes. Unfortunately, the supporting family scenes and side characters are unnecessary in such a short time, and the mish-mashed interference from Jennifer Jones pimp/producer David O’Selznick feels like a cruel joke on what could have been a fine, if bent romance. Yes, Terminal Station is longer and better, but it still falls prey to Jones’ miscasting and the jaded thoughts of the botched Indiscretion cut up. Indeed, I love Monty and loathe Jones, and I freely admit my bias and disdain here. However, it’s as if the two leads have been spliced together after the fact from two different films. Hehe, one in Terminal Station and the other in Indiscretion of an American Wife, perhaps? Clift creates a destructive modern relationship with a fun to watch but disturbed and conflicted male. In poor contrast, Jones is trapped in a sappy fifties romance and comes off as an unsatisfied bitch. Which is it supposed to be? Thus is Terminal Station’s conundrum, and neither version fully provides an answer. Selznick attempts to create some cheesecake with a heart of gold for his new lady, but the ruined focus on Jones in Indiscretion of an American Wife is simply inferior to the full length, rough, and almost too depressing Terminal Station. I think Indiscretion of an American Wife is meant to be eye popping and scandalous instead. The irony is that with all fifties cuts and convictions, we don’t even get to see the actual indiscretion! How can the audience know or care when the incident is so edited that it ends up more confusing than saucy?
Fortunately, any fan of Montgomery Clift can find at least some saving grace here. Clift made sixteen films in a 20-year span and was nominated for an Academy Award four times in that period- The Search, A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, and Judgment at Nuremberg. Although he never won a major award, that averages to an Oscar nominated performance every four films. Who has that kind of steady, quality consistent output today? Not the contemporary folks churning out five or six studio bankrupting comedies for 10 or 15 million dollar salaries! With such a classic track record, I suppose we can forgive Monty for the mess that is Indiscretion of an American Wife. Even with a performance created in the editing room, a convoluted script, and no time or support to help him, Clift’s not that bad. In fact, he’s just dandy. Sure, Italian quips and a name like Giovanni Diora don’t make us think Clift. However, his pent up, confused, and no less passionate lead is intriguing to watch nonetheless. Oh, a man all tied up and conflicted over a woman! It could be a painful, clichéd, and dry performance, but Indiscretion of an American Wife can be redeemed so long as the camera stays on Clift. When Giovanni says he’s learned what wanting is, we damn well believe him. He speaks sternly enough, with strong, direct statements. Clift doesn’t need to shout, yet remains just above a whisper. It’s a tormented and awkward relationship, yet for better or worse, Giovanni isn’t afraid to show his love in that angry man way. It’s mental, alluring, asinine, and sympathetic all rolled into one- and it’s all delivered smashingly by Clift.
And then, there’s Jennifer Jones. She turns her back on her family and her lover. Which does she want? Who knows? Who cares? Right from her opening frantic running away, Mary jars the audience. She’s supposed to be an endearing, classy fifties woman buying dresses for her daughter, yet we’re also meant to believe this sweet, wonderful woman is responsible for the whole eponymous drama! She’s running from Giovanni and has screwed up at home, and the portrayal is beyond a wishy-washy woman who can’t make up her mind. Mary gets her thrills and hates herself. Is the audience supposed to root for her escape or loathe her scandalous ways? Our time is short as it is, and the character’s motivations are muddled at best. Jones does nothing to make us care about Mary’s morals or ambiguity either way. Could a better actress have done more? Perhaps. Did the on-set drama, personal turmoil, and post production busy help? Nope. Mary’s such a saint and good woman, but can we believe a good woman would be involved in such an unseen torrid love affair? Terminal Station is trying to build conflict, but Indiscretion of an American Wife attempts some sort of pale Scarlett O’Hara charm. I’m just a housewife who’s an emancipated American woman! I’m not that imaginative and would rather be home with my husband who’s like a small boy! Huh? At some point, the viewer wonders why any man would be with this train wreck lady. This female character imbalance ruins what could have been a fine and twisted vignette. Let us see the dang depression of it all, Selznick! Otherwise, what’s the point?
Thankfully, the Oscar nominated Christian Dior early fifties fashions, furs, hats, and sharp suits are the perfect mid European time capsule. There are a few bullet bras, too. Though black and white, the Rome locations and Italian signage are lovely. The foreign dialogue, however, might make Station Termini tough for some audiences. The sweeping romantic crescendos and melodramatic zooms are on the fifties over the top bad side, too. Stereotypical Italian male portrayals can be irritating as well. These men are always beating their wives, and on some viewings, I find it rather offensive. Although there are times when I’d like to backhand Jones, too- but then I sound just as bad as Indiscretion of an American Wife. I feel like I’ve been hateful and all over the place in this essay- tackling two very different versions of one peculiar film. Unfortunately, there seems to be too many poor, confusing, and extreme choices surrounding Terminal Station and/or Indiscretion of an American Wife. Whatever you call it or whichever version you see, the could have been pictures, performances, and polarizing cast make this one largely for Clift completists and Jones lovers. Though film students and classic scholars can enjoy the Criterion video edition with both versions in comparison, this one is not an introduction piece. Can Terminal Station still be enjoyed for Clift despite the bitter taste left by Jones and the Indiscretion of an American Wife cut up? I believe so. But you have to really, really like him.