Wednesday, March 25, 2020

THE VISIT (1964)

The small town of Gullen has fallen on hard times: the mines have mostly closed, the young people are leaving, and the town government is on the edge of bankruptcy. Yet the townsfolk are going all out to prepare for a "great event": the fabulously wealthy widow Karla Zachanassian (Ingrid Bergman) is returning to her hometown for a visit after twenty years away. No one knows why, but they assume that she is prepared to donate money to the town to keep it solvent. She arrives with a splash, accompanied by a small entourage and a pet leopard, and she's met by the city council and by her former boyfriend Serge (Anthony Quinn) who takes her off to the hills to see the hut where they used to make out. That evening, the town throws her a huge dinner party. The atmosphere seems to be one of sweet nostalgia, but we can sense some tension in the air, and we soon find out why: when she was 17, she became pregnant by Serge, but he denied being the father and produced evidence to show that she was promiscuous, so the town basically drove her away. At the banquet, she rises to tell the truth about what happened (Serge paid two guys to say that they'd slept with Karla even though Serge knew he had to be the father). She left town, bore the child—who died soon after—and became a prostitute. Still bitter, despite her current social and financial standing, she makes the townspeople an offer: she'll give the town two million dollars, one million for the city and one million to be split among the people, if they will give her justice by executing Serge. The next day, the council votes 4-3 not to accept her offer, and Serge breathes a sigh of relief, but he soon realizes that most of his neighbors may be willing to take Karla up on her offer. Soon, Serge sees townspeople splurging on luxury items—Karla is extending credit to all—and knows that his days may be numbered.

I've resisted watching this film, based on a well-regarded play by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt (a musical version by Kander and Ebb hit Broadway in 2015), for one simple reason: Twentieth Century Fox has refused to make a widescreen print of this film available, on cable or on DVD; the credits are letterboxed but the rest of the movie is presented in pan-and-scan. For shame, Fox. But when I came across a free library discard copy, I broke down and watched it, and I must say it is worth seeing, even in its bastardized form. The main situation borders on theater of the absurd (it's not clear why Serge doesn't just leave town; at one point, he decides to catch a train out, but the townspeople mill about him, stopping him from leaving, and he just gives up), but Bergman and Quinn make the characters real, and even sympathetic, to a point. Tension is built well throughout as we slowly feel the noose tighten around Serge, with even his friends and loved ones getting used to the idea of his murder. [MAJOR SPOILER: in the play, the people do kill him; here, they are stopped at the last minute by Karla. This seems like a Hollywood softening of the ending, but in some ways, this movie's conclusion is just as good in terms of moral criticism.] I'd still like to see the movie in widescreen, but I'm glad I gave in and made the best of what's out there. [DVD]

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