A tale of twisted love and vengeance!
vt Tragic Night
Italy / 81 minutes / bw / Scalera, Farrenia Pancro C.6 Dir: Mario Soldati Scr: M. Bonfantini, E. Cecchi, D. Cinelli, E. Giachino, L. De Caro, M. Soldati Story: La Trappola (1928) by Delfino Cinelli Cine: Massimo Terzano, Otello Martelli Cast: Dori Duranti (i.e., Doris Duranti), Carlo Ninchi, Andrea Checchi, Juan de Landa, Amelia Chellini, Adriano Rimoldi, Giulio Battiferri.
In open country near the remote mountain town of Monticiano, a band of masked men lure the gamekeeper Stefano (Ninchi) into an ambush and beat him unconscious. During the struggle, Stefano is able to wrench a button off the jacket of one of his attackers so that later he’s able to identify the man as Nanni (Checchi), owner of the local trattoria. It’s not surprising that Nanni should have been seeking revenge: Although the regional bigwig, Count Paolo Martorelli (Rimoldi), has no particular objections to the activities of poachers on his land—in fact, in their youth he and Nanni habitually went poaching together, to the ire of Paolo’s father—the overzealous Stefano caught Nanni a while back and got him sent to jail for a couple of months. The fact that the spell in jail came almost immediately after Nanni’s marriage to his beloved wife Armida (Duranti) naturally increased Nanni’s bitterness.
Nanni (Andrea Checchi) lies in wait for his foe.
Yet Stefano doesn’t publicly denounce Nanni for having thrashed him—quite the opposite, he covers up the crime, pretending that the abrasions on his face came about as the result of an accident.
The evidence of the button.
He’s biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to inflict real suffering on Nanni, perhaps even to engineer his death . . .
That opportunity comes some two years later, when the count returns from a protracted visit to the US. One of the first stops he makes on his arrival home is of course to see his old childhood friend Nanni at the trattoria. When Nanni introduces him to his wife Armida, it’s obvious to us as audience that Paolo and Armida have met before.
Stefano (Carlo Ninchi) mimics bonhomie.
Sure enough, we have a flashback.
While Nanni languished in jail in Florence, Armida lived in the city with her mom Zelinda (Chellini), who runs a wine shop there. One day Paolo, spending time in Florence before his departure for the US, encountered her in the wake of a minor traffic accident and fell for her hard. He pursued her and tried to woo her—basically stalked her, in fact, although presumably in 1940s Italy that was regarded as ardent rather than creepy—but, to the horror of Zelinda, who thought a real live count was a mother’s dream come true, Armida turned him down flat, preferring her shabby, impoverished jailbird husband Nanni.
Perhaps “preferring” is too strong a word. As Armida admits much later to the count, she actually fell in love with him, too; her rejection of him was a matter of fidelity, not inclination. These clandestine feelings that Armida and Paolo have for each other, and the very fact of the concealment, add an extra depth to the story that follows—and very much add to its noirishness.
Stefano (Carlo Ninchi) slyly observes Paolo (Adriano Rimoldi) renewing his acquaintance with Armida.
Armida (Doris Duranti) remembers the handsome stranger who wooed her.
Stefano spots almost at once how the land lies between the two, and capitalizes on the situation in order to gain his long-delayed vengeance. He convinces Nanni—with remarkable ease—that, while he was jailed in Florence, Armida and Paolo had an affair, an affair that they’re both only too keen to resume, now, right under his nose. He even persuades the somewhat witless café owner to forge a billet from Armida to Paolo asking for an assignation, on the grounds that this will test whether or not there really is something going on. Of course, Stefano then maneuvers circumstances to make Armida and Paolo seem as guilty as sin.
Zelinda (Amelia Chellini) and Armida (Doris Duranti) arrive to watch the threshing of the wheat.
Crazed with misplaced jealousy, Nanni is ripe to believe his childhood friend has cuckolded him, which is an all-too-dangerous mental state to be in when the two men are out at night intent on a bit of nostalgic poaching . . .
Cinelli’s novel was called La Trappola, a title that translates as “The Trap”—which was also the movie’s title during production. I’m not sure why this was changed to the far less descriptive Tragica Notte, a perfectly good title but not in fact (for reasons not outlined above) of much relevance to this movie. Cinelli was also reportedly upset that the movie’s plot diverged quite a lot from that of his novel. (I haven’t read the novel so can’t judge.) Meanwhile, another of the movie’s multiple credited scripters, Emilio Cecchi, was complaining that his treatment had been basically ignored. Director Mario Soldati eventually explained that Cecchi’s screenplay had been unceremoniously dumped but that he’d been given the on-screen credit as a courtesy.
Armida (Doris Duranti) and Paolo (Adriano Rimoldi) admit they love each other.
Soldati was a very prolific writer, journalist, screenwriter and director, quite a few of whose movies are better known than this one—including the melodrama Malombra, released in the same year and starring Isa Miranda alongside Andrea Checchi, who plays Nanni in Tragica Notte. Although a quite militant socialist, Soldati was able to make movies like these despite the ever-ready censorship of Benito Mussolini’s fascistic regime. Perhaps, as per the charmed life that Mikhail Bulgakov led under the even worse tyranny of Stalin, Soldati was an exception that proved the rule. It’s certainly easy enough to read elements of allegory into Tragica Notte, with Stefano representative of the authoritarian zeal to punish crimes that don’t really exist, Nanni as the common working man who’s the backbone of Italy, Paolo as the aristocratic old guard who, while not entirely trustworthy, had established a mutually rewarding common ground with the people, and Armida as Italy herself.
Duranti puts her somewhat austere beauty to great use as Armida. Armida has the same sort of aristocratic good looks as Paolo, although in her case we suspect they’re the outward sign of a greater integrity than the high-born count possesses: for love of Nanni, she spurns her desire for the count but, on receiving the faked billet, Paolo is only too eager to turn up for a purported assignation with a married woman—a woman married to, no less, his lifelong friend. In the movie’s finale we see Armida slowly closing the trattoria’s main door as if resignedly imprisoning herself in the life she has to lead rather than stepping out into the one she might have led.
Adding to the sense of noirishness is the cinematography, done by Massimo Terzano and Otello Martelli. Really, of course, the cinematographic style on offer here is more akin to Italian realism, which fed into Italian neorealism; but Italian neorealism fed into the style of film noir, so that with hindsight we see it as noirish. The cinematographers brilliantly exploited their locations in Florence but more particularly in Monticiano, a village of staggering beauty when seen from afar; the location shooting makes it seem like one of those places you’d like to stay in before the rest of the tourists discover it.
Among the other bits of cinematography to dazzle, there’s the sequence immediately before Armida has the minor traffic accident in Florence that introduces her to Paolo. Distracted by her separation from Nanni, Armida is not really looking where she’s going as she walks across one of Florence’s bridges. To us as audience there’s something very strange going on: Armida’s background appears to be as clumsily phony as anything seen through a Hollywood car’s green-screened rear window. As things move on, though, we discover that Armida was walking alongside a cart that contained an upright mirror or sheet of pane glass; the wrongness of the scene was because what we were seeing as straightforward background was in fact a reflection—in other words, the background was moving in the wrong direction. It’s a wonderfully inventive piece of viewer wrongfooting.
Although it wasn’t very well received by the Italian critics on release—perhaps they too saw the allegorical element I’ve noted, and were worried for their necks?—Tragica Notte is a movie that offers many riches. Among the four principals, Checchi stands out as the one who’s merely very good; there’s splendid support from Chellini as Armida’s yackety-yackety-yack mother Zelinda and interesting work from de Landa as Nanni’s—and everybody’s—buddy Faille. Faille features in a longish rustic-realism sequence during which the villagers thresh the wheat; he accompanies their efforts, a glint in his eye, with operatic renditions worthy of a Three Tenors performance. Again, Soldati seems to be lampooning the faux-ideals of the fascist regime.
Faille (Juan de Landa) sings accompaniment to the threshing.
With its compelling performances, its fluent narrative and its interesting political subtext, Tragica Notte seems to me one of those movies that shouldn’t be missed. I’m sure some of the expatriate Hollywood film noir directors watched it and learned from it.