The Passionate Thief (1960); directed by Mario Monicelli

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Charlie and I went to The Film Forum last night to check out the restored The Passionate Thief (1960), directed by Mario Monicelli, and starring Anna Magnani, Ben Gazzara and Toto. It’s getting a nice theatrical re-release, and it looks amazing, crisp and glamorous, dark and seedy, the one-crazy-night plot taking place throughout Rome, a city swept away by its collective New Year’s Eve celebrations. Everyone is out partying, everyone crams into the subways, everyone sets off firecrackers and, as one, throws things out of their apartment windows, a very literal gesture of “out with the old,” causing characters to have to dive for cover on the streets below. Slapstick, vaudevillian, totally screwball, featuring missed opportunities, mistaken identities, and ongoing running gags that get funnier with each repetition, The Passionate Thief was a BLAST, and awesome to watch after a week of super-serious end-of-year 2014 films. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a lot of great stuff, but The Passionate Thief is devoted to pure silliness and farce in a way that was like a bubbly glass of champagne, light, airy, ridiculous. There was a guy sitting in the back who was laughing so hard, and stamping his feet that Charlie murmured worriedly that the dude might be about to have a heart attack. But it really was that funny: there is a catharsis in that kind of laughter that was just beautiful.

Anna Magnani plays Tortorella, a struggling actress (we first see her acting her part in a huge crowd scene where she has to react to a saint’s miracle: watching her gesture and scream, “A MIRACLE! A MIRACLE! A MIRACLE!” with 100% conviction was the first belly-laugh of the film). Tortorella is “up for anything,” as another character says, and when she gets an invite for a swanky New Year’s Eve party, she goes all out in preparation. She dyes her black hair blonde, she dresses in an evening gown with swirling little tassels all over it, and drapes herself in a white fox fur (complete with full fox head). She is ready for some fun! Unfortunately, she gets stood up by the group who invited her out (although their paths do cross again later), and so she meets up with Toto, an old friend, who lives in squalor, is perpetually broke, and has just taken a job to be a “second” for a professional thief, out to swipe jewels and purses and cigarette cases from the drunken New Year’s Eve crowds. Toto has hired himself out to Lello, a guy who has promised to bring in a specific amount of money by the next morning, and their first attempts to steal things go terribly, mainly because Toto’s life is one blundering disaster after another. Tortorella has no idea that Toto and Lello are in cahoots: all she knows is that Lello is … well, pretty Rowr, even though he is young enough to be her son, and so she basically decides to crush on him for the evening, an evening that should be fun, it’s New Year’s Eve! Lello plays along, but he’s using her in order to make the scores he needs to make.

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Hijinx ensue. The hijinx never stop. Toto ends up wearing a woman’s flowered hat at an upscale party and singing an Italian ballad on a little stage for the roaring crowd. He doesn’t even know how he got there. Tortorella ends up having to ride on the back of a motorcycle to get to a certain nightclub, after being ditched on the subway by a scheming Toto and Lello … and seeing Magnani, staggering off the motorcycle, in her gown, with newspapers stuffed into her cleavage and up and down her legs in order to ward off the cold on the back of the bike, was one of the funniest bits in the film. Magnani, teeth chattering, says to the motorcyclist: “Could you help me with the newspapers?”

Cars careen through the streets. Furniture flies out the windows. Tortorella has a fight with Toto every 5 minutes. He’s worthless! He’s a beggar, a scoundrel! But then, oh well, let’s move on to the next party. They end up crashing a snooty party filled with stuck-up Germans. It does not go well. The three interlopers are eventually tossed out onto the sidewalk.

There are recurring funny bits involving a drunken American who cruises through the streets of Rome in his gigantic obnoxious tail-finned car. He seems to think that all Italians would love nothing more than to jump into various fountains, fully clothed. He’s seen La Dolce Vita one too many times (it had just come out when Passionate Thief was being made), and Tortorella says, when he tries to drag her into the fountain. “You’ve seen too many movies.”

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The pace is perfection. The gags are ridiculous: Toto, arguing with Lello on the sidewalk outside a restaurant: “Would you go away? I am out with a RESPECTABLE LADY tonight.” (meaning Tortorella). Just as he says that, we see Magnani through the window of the restaurant bop another woman over the head with her purse, screaming curses at her.

Magnani is delicious and completely spontaneous. I re-watched Mamma Roma just last week, and it’s extraordinary to see the difference in approach, depending on the material. The Magnani THING is still there: total truth, always thinking, reacting, totally in touch with her impulses – both physical and emotional – but Mamma Roma is so tragic (despite her determination to do what needs to be done to save her son), and Passionate Thief is so buoyant and openly comedic. It was great to see her in a flat-out farce: running around in her heels, barking out insults at Toto, shivering with excitement at the thought of going to bed with Lello (she has a great moment where she talks to herself in the mirror about it: “So he’s young enough to be your son. So what.”), snuggling up in her furs, fighting, crying, laughing uproariously. She’s the best. Toto didn’t even need to do anything: he just stepped quietly into the action, and I started laughing. And Gazzara was great: sexy, young, intense, and a match for Magnani onscreen (because let’s face it: not many people could keep up with her. Brando told Truman Capote he was afraid to work with her in the proposed stage production of Orpheus Descending, saying: “I had no intention of walking out on any stage with Magnani. Not in that part. They’d have had to mop me up.” Thank goodness, the two eventually did work together, on the film adaptation of that play, The Fugitive Kind – it is electric to see them together, because she is as grounded as he is, and as emotionally truthful. She brings out great great stuff in him.)

Gazzara wrote about the experience filming The Passionate Thief in his autobiography:

Monicelli was a very serious, unsmiling man but a master at directing comedy. As Toto and I weaved through what must’ve been a thousand people – men in black ties, women in evening gowns – our attempts at lifting things from the other guests were truly comical. As he did in BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, Toto found the humor in his own ineptitude. That production gave me a lasting lesson in freedom and improvisation. Magnani and Toto came from a background of theater and variety shows, where dialogue was often improvised or rewritten, and they war forced to use their imagination and their wit. They kept me on my toes but I learned fast, and despite the fact that I acted in English while they spoke Italian, the timing never suffered. I’d always spoken the Sicilian dialect with my parents, never a word of English, and that was a big help in understanding my costars. I never missed a cue …

I first saw Anna Magnani in Rossellini’s OPEN CITY. The raw realism of her work in that 1945 movie was an eye-opener. Whenever I could, I used to go to the World Theater on West 49th Street, which showed foreign movies, usually Italian or French, in the years after WWII. A few directors who were part of a new movement called Neorealism had started making terrific pictures. I was still a kid but I knew that these movies had something that American films lacked. Neorealism WAS a new realism, shot often on real streets. In some scenes the directors had nonprofessionals playing scenes with professional actors, who didn’t seem to be actors either. Magnani’s Roman roots were evident in her passion and in her humor. Her talent bowled me over….

One night we were shooting in a beautiful Baroque church. Toto, Anna, and I were seated outside near the entrance. The street seemed deserted. It was August, holiday time, and most Romans had left for the country or for the beaches. I asked Toto to sing me the song [he had written]. He looked at me from behind his dark glasses. He didn’t so much sing the song as talk it, with a reality and an immediacy that I’d never heard before. At one point, Anna joined him in harmony. An extraordinary night.

Charlie and I had an absolute blast. We laughed nonstop for the entire length of the film. It’s that much fun! Any movie that can bring on that sort of reaction has my heart and soul forever.

New Yorkers, it’s playing at the Film Forum (and has been extended through the 16th). Also keep your eyes peeled for the restored version on DVD. It’s wonderful.

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3 Responses to The Passionate Thief (1960); directed by Mario Monicelli

  1. Richard von Busack says:

    I just saw this yesterday at the theater at PFA in Berkeley, and it murdered me. “You look like Kim Novak.” “Well, you look like a crow.” Thanks for the quote from the Ben Gazarra’s memoir, which I’d like to swipe for a piece I’m doing. I wonder–did you hear why this outrageously good movie never got an NYC release until now?

    • sheila says:

      Richard – I don’t know why it never got a NYC release. Very strange – it’s such a good film.

      Very happy to hear your reaction to it!!

      If your piece is published anywhere and you felt like providing a link, I would love to read!

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