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Definitely one of the more obscure films of Ava Gardner's career, The Angel Wore Red (1960) was barely given a theatrical release by MGM and has rarely been shown on television. As Variety declared: "Contains some philosophical merit, but just not box office stuff."
Based on a novel called The Fair Bride and written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who penned many excellent earlier screenplays including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and The Woman in the Window (1944), The Angel Wore Red was praised for its writing but criticized for its direction. "The dialogue bristles with flashes of intelligence and wit," said The New York Times. But Variety suggested that Johnson might have been in over his head with the demanding locations and in controlling the tone of his story.
The story's Spanish Civil War backdrop seemed to come off as especially murky. It's against this canvas that Dirk Bogarde's disillusioned priest forsakes his vows and falls in love with Ava Gardner's kindhearted prostitute, before ultimately choosing the church over sex. The movie doesn't really take sides in the war, and consequently the Loyalists and the rebels are each alternatively seen as good and bad. That said, any film about a romance between a prostitute and a priest was bound to have a hard time pleasing critics and finding an audience; sure enough, The New York Times declared the premise to be of "questionable taste."
By all accounts, Nunnally Johnson did have his hands full on this production. Shot in Rome and Sicily because the Spanish government wouldn't permit the story to be filmed in Spain, Johnson found the vagaries of Italian film production quite startling. His Italian producer, for example, seemed primarily concerned with regulating the numbers of Catholics and Communists being employed on set. In Sicily, the Mafia controlled the extras as well as those placed in charge of them. One such assistant suddenly left town when he received a death threat scrawled across his bathroom mirror. Other assistants would get extras to cry when needed by hitting them. Late one night on location, Johnson decided that this would be his last film as director. He later described the moment: "What the hell am I doing here? Two in the morning. In Sicily. At the age of sixty. On a slippery rock. On a cold night. Saying 'put the camera here.' This is the end of it. Let somebody else say, 'Put the camera here.' I should be home in bed." He'd simply had enough, and went back to being a writer.
Toward the end of production on The Angel Wore Red, Johnson learned that his producer was secretly editing the film without Johnson's approval. As a result, Johnson never had a chance to complete his own cut and was ungraciously sent home after the film wrapped. "The day I finished the photography," he said, "I was given a ticket to leave town. I never saw the final cut. I've never seen the picture."
Dirk Bogarde, in his memoir, shared an interesting but also dispiriting account of the production. Cast as the priest after Montgomery Clift decided not to do the picture, Bogarde recalled: "I had only been on the film a very few days before I realized that Mr. Clift had shown remarkable sagacity in withdrawing from the production. We started off, mercifully free from studio interference, in a semidocumentary style, no make-up, grainy, real - which pleased me. Ava was equally happy. Hair scraped back, skin shining, in a cheap floral dress, she made a perfect foil to my shabby cassocked priest. But after the first ten days' rushes had been viewed by an astonished, not to say shocked, Hollywood, we were ordered to re-shoot and gloss everything up. Ava was bundled into a wardrobe by Fontana and I was tidied up generally. Nunnally Johnson, our gentle director, grew sadder by the day, and finally Ava and I lost heart and threw in the sponge helplessly; you couldn't buck the system."
Johnson had much to say about working with Ava Gardner. On the one hand, "she was a real headache. She traveled with 30 pieces of luggage, all of which had to go with the plane as she was terrified of losing it. She was a sultana in terms of her accommodations, the accoutrements of a star. She had a succession of secretaries who collapsed under the strain of handling all of these things... She had to be escorted to nightclubs; she couldn't go alone. She'd stay up all night. Even when we shot in Sicily she found all-night places."
On the other hand, Johnson adored her and thought her a fine actress, even though she was terribly insecure in her own abilities: "Sometimes she would do a scene particularly well. I would thank her and she would fall in my arms and say, 'Christ, you know I can't act.' And I'd say, 'What is it then? It's just as good as acting.' But she never believed me... Ava is like Marilyn. She's really frightened. She would cry a lot, she had no confidence in herself, she felt she couldn't act, she had no home, no base, no family, she missed them terribly, she felt she'd missed out in life. It was hard to believe her unhappiness. When you looked at her, even then, she was...the most beautiful human being in the world."
Also in the cast are Joseph Cotten and the famous Italian director Vittorio De Sica, here playing a disenchanted general. De Sica's voice was dubbed, and not very well. ("Jarringly incompatible," said Variety.) De Sica knew a thing or two about the shadiness of Italian film unions and bosses: He demanded $1000 in cash every day before going in front of the cameras because he didn't trust he'd otherwise get paid.
Producer: Goffredo Lombardo
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson; Bruce Marshall (novel "The Fair Bride" uncredited); Giorgio Prosperi (dialogue Italian version)
Cinematography: Guiseppe Rotunno
Art Direction: Piero Filippone
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: Ava Gardner (Soledad), Dirk Bogarde (Arturo Carrera), Joseph Cotten (Hawthorne), Vittorio De Sica (Gen. Clave), Aldo Fabrizi (Canon Rota), Arnoldo Fo (Insurgent major), Finlay Currie (Bishop), Rossanna Rory (Mercedes), Enrico Maria Salerno (Capt. Botargus).
BW-98m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jeremy Arnold
Dirk Bogarde, Snakes and Ladders
Charles Higham, Ava: A Life Story
Nora Johnson, Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson
Tom Stempel, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson