Friday, October 4, 2019

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette 1948)

(This post is a part of the Unemployment Blogathon hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog II The Sequel)

Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (1948), in English literally Bicycle Thieves (but known for a time as The Bicycle Thief in the United States), has been counted as one of the greatest movie of all time nearly ever since it was first released. In the very first Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, Bicycle Thieves was ranked at no. 1, only four years after its release. Since then it has routinely ranked on other lists of the greatest films of all time, from that of the Directors Guild of America to Entertainment Weekly

Bicycle Thieves is set in Rome not long after the end of World War II and centres on Antonio Ricci (played by Lamberto Maggiorani), a man with a wife, a young son, and a baby who has been out of work for some time. Antonio gets a job as a bill poster (someone who puts up movie posters around Rome), but in order to keep the job he must have a bicycle. In order to get his bicycle out of hock, his wife Maria (played by Lianella Carell) pawns sheets that were part of her dowry. With his bicycle out of hock all seems well, at least until his bicycle is stolen. Antonio must then find his bicycle or risk losing his new job.

Bicycle Thieves was based on the novel Ladri di biciclette (the same name in Italian) by Luigi Bartolini. That having been said, about the only thing the novel and the movie have in common are that a bicycle is stolen. In fact, in the novel not only is the protagonist a  middle class artist, but he has another bicycle that he rides around to look for the one that is stolen. In the movie Antonio is clearly poor and he has only one bicycle, hence the urgency of getting the bicycle back. 

Bicycle Thieves is considered one of the finest examples of Italian Neorealism, something Vittorio De Sica has intended from the beginning. That might not have been the case if Mr De Sica had accepted financing from one particular source. It was while he was looking for backing for the film that he received an offer to finance the film from David O. Selznick. Unfortunately, the offer came with the condition that Vittorio De Sica cast Cary Grant in the lead. While Mr. De Sica admired Cary Grant, he felt he was totally wrong for the part and as a result he did not accept Selznick's offer. Ultimately, money was raised for Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica himself and his friends.

Not only would Cary Grant not be cast in Bicycle Thieves, but the cast would be composed almost entirely of non-actors. What is more, Lamberto Maggiorani, who played the lead role of Antonio, was a machinist who had no intention of becoming an actor. Mr. Maggiorani's wife had heard a radio announcement for a nine year old boy to be cast in a movie. It was then that she brought a picture of her son with his father into Vittorio De Sica. Mr. De Sica had no interest in the boy, but he was impressed by Lamberto Maggiorani's face. He managed to convince Mr. Maggiorani's wife to bring him in to meet with Vittorio De Sica. 

Similarly, the casting of Antonio's young son Bruno would also come about by accident. In fact, the role was not cast until the movie had already begun shooting. It was during a scene in which Antonio is looking for his bike that Vittorio De Sica noticed a young boy in a crowd of spectators. It was then that Enzo Staiola was cast as Bruno.

Not only was Bicycle Thieves cast using non-actors, but it was also shot entirely on location. The use of non-actors and real-life locations give the film the feel of a documentary. That having been said, Bicycle Thieves was planned down to the smallest detail. Not only were the crowd scenes carefully choreographed, but they were even rehearsed. At times Vittorio De Sica had six cameras shooting at once in order to capture the actors' reactions from various angles.

While today there is very little that the average person would find objectionable about Bicycle Thieves, the film would run into trouble with the Production Code Administration (the PCA) in the United States. The head of PCA, Joseph Breen, would only approve Bicycle Thieves if two scenes were cut. The first was one in which Bruno is about to relieve himself against a building. Even though absolutely nothing is shown, the PCA considered the scene objectionable. The second is a scene in which Antonio chases a man he believes to have stolen his bicycle into what is clearly a brothel. Again, nothing is seen, but the PCA found the scene objectionable. Vittorio De Sica refused to make the cuts and appealed the decision, only to have the PCA stand their ground. It was then that Bicycle Thieves was released without the Production Code Seal of Approval. Skouras Brothers Enterprises picked the movie up, followed by two other independent theatre chains. Despite the PCA's objections, audiences made no major complaints about Bicycle Thieves. Even the National Legion of Decency gave Bicycle Thieves a rating of "B," "Morally objectionable in part," rather than their dreaded rating of "C," "Condemned."

Of course, here it must be pointed out that while the Italian title Ladri di biciclette is literally "Bicycle Thieves" in English, for years it bore the title The Bicycle Thief in the United States. The reason for this is unknown to this day. In other English speaking countries, including the United Kingdom, it was released under the title "Bicycle Thieves." It would not be until 2007 when Criterion released the movie on DVD that it would finally bear the proper title Bicycle Thieves in the United States. 

Another curiosity is that while today Bicycle Thieves is counted among the greatest films ever made, it was almost universally hated in Italy upon its initial release. The exception to this rule was Italian critic Guido Aristarco, although even he complained that "sentimentality might at times take the place of artistic emotion." While the film was often reviled in Italy, elsewhere it was considered a masterpiece. Indeed, not only did British critics universally praise the film, but it won the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source. In the United States it was praised by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, Variety, and other critics. Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had yet to establish a "Best Foreign Film" category, The Bicycle Thief was awarded an honorary Oscar as "...the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1949."

Today it is easy to understand the praise that Bicycle Thieves received upon its initial release and ever since. Quite simply it is an incredible film. Although meticulously planned, Bicycle Thieves looks almost as if Vittorio De Sica had simply followed a poor bill poster around and shot slices of his life. What is more, it is a very poignant film, and one that is relevant even in the United States of the 21st Century. Many Americans today could easily identify with Antonio, worried as he is about putting food on the table for his family and keeping his job to do so. Bicycle Thieves addressed some of the primary concerns of Post-War Italy, concerns still shared by people around the world today.

Not only does Bicycle Thieves boast a great script and great direction, but it also has some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Carlo Montuori. Any frame of Bicycle Thieves could stand on its own as a still photograph. Bicycle Thieves also boasts some solid performances from its leads. While Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola were not professional actors, they are entirely convincing as Antonio and his son Bruno. It is difficult believing that a seasoned actor could have done better.

Bicycle Thieves is a marvellous film and one that every cinema lover should see at least once in his or her life, preferably more. Although shot in Post-War Italy, its themes and its concerns are still as relevant as ever. And it is a poignant film, beautifully acted and shot. If Bicycle Thieves is still counted among the greatest films ever made, there is good reason why.


Steve Bailey said...

Terrific choice for the blogathon. I first saw this movie in college, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for the fascinating background information on this impressive and heartbreaking film. It is not something I turn too often for it overwhelms my empathy, but the performances of those two "amateurs" are cemented in my memory. As you said, it is difficult to believe that professional actors could have been any better.