Friday, October 11, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'The Scientific Cardplayer' (1972)

Bette Davis took on all sorts of odd projects in the later part of her career, including signing on to various European productions looking for a little Hollywood star power (probably at a discount). The Scientific Cardplayer (known in the original Italian as Lo Scopone Scientifico and on the subtitles of the version I watched as The Scopone Game) is one of two Italian productions in which she co-starred in her later years (the other is 1963's The Empty Canvas, which I haven't seen), and while it's an interesting curiosity for Davis fans, she doesn't exactly add much to the film's overall effect.

For starters, her entire performance (save one or two lines in English) has been dubbed into Italian, which means that the movie loses one of Davis' most appealing qualities, her voice. The role is actually a fitting one for late-period Davis, as a capricious and vindictive rich woman (known only as "the old lady") who vacations in a lavish villa overlooking a particularly poor neighborhood in Rome. She's obsessed with playing cards, and so she invites a working-class couple (played by Italian stars Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano) to play against her and her chauffeur (Joseph Cotten, also lending Hollywood glamour but also dubbed into Italian) while she's in town. They've been playing the Italian card game scopone against her for eight years, always teased with the bankroll she gives them each night and then wins back.

The old lady is sort of a personification of capitalism run amok, and the movie's climax involves her risking increasingly large sums of money and dangling the prospect of unimagined riches in front of her poor opponents (with whom she disingenuously claims friendship). Tonally, the movie is a bit of a mess, as Sordi plays his character as a total buffoon, while the old lady's cruelty is often deadly serious, and the poverty of the couple's neighborhood is depicted with grimy realism. Commenters online describe the movie as a black comedy, although it isn't very funny. And once you understand the central allegory, there's not much entertainment in watching the repetitive back-and-forth between the old lady and the couple as she dashes their hopes again and again.

There's also the distracting dubbing, which, typical for an Italian movie of this period, applies to all of the actors, not just the Americans. As for Davis, she projects regal contempt well enough in her limited screen time, but there's only so much effect she can have without delivering her own lines. The movie may benefit from her presence in terms of getting attention, but it doesn't benefit much artistically.

No comments: