“We’ve gotta figure out something better. We can’t go on like this.”
Film noir was an American phenomenon during the 1940s and 50s. It was built on the foundation of stateside pulp writers, and thrived on the sex appeal and allure of stateside actors. Still, the style proved so effective (and cheap) that it trickled out into international waters before the end of the classical period. The results were fascinating, blending the hardened realism of Europe with the doomed fatalism of postwar America. Oftentimes, in an attempt to draw larger audiences, films would cast English-speaking actors and dub them over during the editing process. What’s a voice, after all, when you’ve got a face that’s been recognized by Hollywood?
Il bidone (1955) is a footnote in the career of its director, Federico Fellini, but it’s one of the most sobering Italian noirs of all time. It’s a predictably slow burn (as most neo-realist films tend to be) that follows the exploits of three low level con men: the arrogant womanizer Roberto (Franco Fabrizi), the nervous husband Picasso (Richard Basehart), and the tired veteran Augusto (Broderick Crawford). They have been in business with each other for a number of years, but they’re growing old, and the realization that they’ve wasted their lives begins to set in. Where does a con man turn when conning is all they know?
The film’s title loosely translates to “The Swindle”, and Fellini wastes little time establishing the trio’s amoral tactics. Augusto dresses like a priest in order to con poor country folk out of their money, and the matter-of-fact nature of the scene only makes it tougher to watch. The subsequent reactions of the characters neatly set up where they are in life: Roberto wants to go out and celebrate, Picasso is eager to dote on his wife Iris (Giulietta Masina), and Augusto grimaces his way through another night.
Crawford was at an interesting juncture in his career. He’d won the Oscar for Best Actor for All the King’s Men (1949) and had subsequently appeared in a handful of films noir, including The Mob (1951) and Scandal Sheet (1952). He was the prototypical blowhard, throwing around his literal and figurative weight to intimidate anybody he encountered. He rarely took guff from other characters, and when he did, a la Human Desire (1954), he wound up killing them. This was not a man to be trifled with.
The preconceived notion of Crawford as a tough guy makes his performance as Augusto all the more fascinating. The character is like an old car; he once hummed, but now he’s broken down and running on fumes. Whatever moxie he once possessed has given way to frustration, and a sense that his best days never materialized. That’s not to imply that Crawford is one note, of course. There are multiple scenes where Augusto perks up at the possibility of redemption (or at least something different). He stands up straighter, mustering up whatever charm he has left, and still, no dice.
Fellini wrote the part with Humphrey Bogart in mind, which would have been fascinating, but Crawford was the better choice when it comes to the depiction of a loser. Bogart would have been too cool, too disenchanted with the Italian setting. Crawford gives Augusto an unrelenting pitifullness, as though we’re only watching the parts where Sisyphus’ boulder rolls down the hill.
Nowhere is this more evident than the sequence involving Augusto’s daughter, Patrizia (Lorella De Luca). He bumps into her on the street after what seems like years apart, and for a brief moment, the two of them are free from the burdens of the outside world. They begin to spend more time together, and Augusto goes as far as to offer payment for her schooling. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, Augusto is arrested outside of a movie theater, and Patrizia, unaware of her father’s sins, watches in horror. A shot at deliverance gets squandered in a couple of seconds.
Fellini doesn’t pull punches. The celebratory, sensorial style that would go on to make the filmmaker a legend has not yet surfaced here, allowing him to construct a tight, heartbreaking yarn. There’s barely any fat on the bone, and while the country scenes bear more than a passing resemblance to his previous film, La strada (1954), they achieve an entirely different goal. Whereas La strada spoke to lost innocence, Il bidone articulated the fear that survival could kill the desire to be alive. Augusto’s partners have interests outside of conning, but the film makes the specific choice to weed them out of the narrative once they’ve given up on the business. Their decision to pursue the straight and narrow path dooms them to a life they’re unequipped for, and the aging Augusto is the only one who resists
Since Il bidone is one of Fellini’s lesser-known films, I won’t spoil the ending. Anyone familiar with the director’s work can ascertain that things go profoundly awful for Augusto, but it’s the execution of a theme that matters most. There are shades of future masterpieces like Nights of Cabiria (1957) and La Dolce Vita (1960), but the noir pathos has never been more prominently featured in a Fellini joint than it is here, and for that reason alone, it’s worth revisiting.
TRIVIA: Richard Basehart appeared in Fellini’s previous film, La strada.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.