by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the movie Vertigine (“Vertigo”), a 1941 Italian film which we were unable to locate subtitles for, though it was simultaneously filmed in Italian and German (a few German nationals — notably Camilla Horn, the leading lady of John Barrymore’s 1928 Russian-revolution epic Tempest — appeared in the film; the casts were the same in both but the Italian actors were dubbed in German for the German version, while the German actors were dubbed in Italian for the all-Italian version we watched). The star was Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who made quite a few films even though by 1941 he was a rather dumpy-looking balding guy, and in this movie he was relegated to second billing, playing famous tenor Luciano Riccardi (the ironic similarity of the name to that of a later tenor who became an even bigger international star than Gigli, Luciano Pavarotti, didn’t elude me), with Emma Gramatica top-billed as his sister Letizia, but with most of the screen time going to the three points of a typical romantic triangle: Riccardi’s daughter Claudia (Ruth Hellberg), her boyfriend Alberto Vieri (Herbert Wilk), and the “other woman” in Alberto’s life, Corinna Deslys (Camilla Horn).
Directed — competently but ordinarily — by Guido Brignone from a script by Guido Cantini (translated into German for the alternate version by Ela Elborg and Georg C. Klaren) — Vertigine takes a sharp turn into soap opera midway through as Alberto leaves Claudia for Corinna, who takes him on a grand tour of Europe’s casino resorts and sticks him with some heavy-duty gambling debts, and Claudia bails him out financially without telling him that she’s actually been diagnosed with a fatal disease. In order to take care of his daughter, Riccardi suddenly announces his retirement (done through the usual device of a montage of newspaper headlines), then makes a comeback singing Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème — and in a film that until then has been pretty plainly written and directed there’s a marvelous (though not as original as Brignone and Cantini evidently thought it was) metafictional scene in which Riccardi, in character, is consoling the dying Mimì (Livia Caloni) on stage just as Alberto, now returned to Claudia, is consoling her as she dies.
It’s a strongly plotted film — more so than I expected when I took the chance on running it even though Charles and I know virtually no Italian (we expected it to be more of a musical and less of a soap opera) — and Gigli, playing what amounts to a second lead, does get a few chances to sing. Probably his most impressive moment is his first selection, staged as part of an outdoor music festival that’s going on in Venice when the film opens, which turned out to be an Italian-language version of “Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Gigli’s voice was supposed to be past its prime by 1941, but you couldn’t tell it from the delightfully lyrical singing he does throughout the movie, and his “Winterstürme” (or whatever it is in Italian) is astonishing, different from what we’re used to hearing not only because it’s in Italian but because Gigli’s lyric tenor is worlds apart from the Heldentenor (or wanna-be Heldentenor) we usually hear as Siegmund. It’s not clear from this excerpt that he could have tackled the entire role, but his gorgeously honeyed voice communicates Wagner’s lyricism and the sound of Italian actually fits the music surprisingly well. (I remember buying the Romophone CD Wagner en Français and thinking the French language seemed less to be reflecting the music than fighting it — but that’s an impression I’ve never had from hearing Wagner in Italian.)
Gigli’s other selections are the 18th century aria antiche “Caro mio ben” by Giordani (though in researching this song on the Internet I found that there’s common agreement that the composer was named Giordani but dispute over which Giordani: it’s usually attributed to Giuseppe, 1744-1798, but some musicologists credit the song to his older brother Tomasso, 1730-1806), which he’s shown singing in a recording studio; and staged excerpts from Bohème and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur (the latter with an unidentified soprano, the Bohème bits with a separately credited cast: Livia Caloni as Mimì, Tito Gobbi as Marcello, Tatiana Menotti as Musetta and Gino Conti as Colline — though the other singers’ roles are so badly truncated Gobbi, whom it would have been interesting to hear this much before he became a major star in his own right, is reduced to about two or three lines). One of the film’s most interesting conceits is that it goes out of its way to show how widespread the fictional Luciano Riccardi’s popularity extends; as he sings the Wagner, the camera pans away from the image of him on stage to remote speakers and people in restaurants and public squares hearing the performance “live” over them even though they’re literally miles away from where it’s taking place; and when he’s shown recording “Caro mio ben,” the camera cuts from him in the studio to his daughter and her lover listening to the record at home.
Vertigine seems like an odd combination of musical and soap opera — the Italian title means “dizziness” or “vertigo” and seems to be an oblique reference to Claudia’s illness (the German title, Tragödie die Liebe, gave the whole plot away!) — and it was actually issued in the U.S. in 1946 under the title Broken Love, so there’s always a possibility that a subtitled or dubbed print might emerge and we might be able to appreciate this movie more fully in a language we both understand. Also of note is that when the 1944 U.S. film Laura was finally released in Italy in 1946 (after the end of World War II made it possible for the U.S.-Italian cultural exchange to resume in both directions) it was called Vertigine — while Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo was called La donna che visse due volte (which I’m guessing means something like “The Woman Who Showed Two Sides” or “The Woman Who Lived Twice”) for its Italian release.