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TCM Imports - July 2019
Remind Me

Il Bidone aka The Swindle

Il Bidone, a 1955 release also known as The Swindle, is both a stand-alone movie and the centerpiece of Federico Fellini's unofficial "trilogy of loneliness," preceded by La Strada from 1954 and followed by The Nights of Cabiria from 1957. All three are key works marking the last great moments of Italian neorealism, which was waning as central figures like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica moved on to different genres. Fellini himself would move to the shifting styles of La Dolce Vita (1960) and the delirious visions of (1963) in the early 1960s, but in the 1950s he still held the neorealist conviction that nothing is more dramatic than the lives of ordinary people transferred to the screen with a minimum of embellishment. That doctrine was always more aspirational than actual - every great neorealist movie is enriched by expressive camerawork, earnest performances and a compelling narrative - but staying close to present-day actualities was fundamental to the movement's goals. Fellini brilliantly accomplishes that in Il Bidone even as he enhances the story's impact with emotional music, highly effective editing and first-rate acting by a cast including his wife, Giulietta Masina, and two imported Hollywood stars, Broderick Crawford and Richard Basehart.

As the title suggests, Il Bidone is about a swindle, or rather a series of swindles, some successful and others not. The swindlers are a trio of small-time con artists: Bruno is a part-time painter with a wife and child to support; Roberto is a would-be pop singer; and ringleader Augusto is an aging crook who fears that his estranged daughter will find out how he makes his living. The story opens with one of their typical cons. Driving to a poor little farm in the countryside, they pretend to be priests looking for jewelry buried by a killer along with the bones of his victim, all planted in advance by Augusto and company. When the scammers "find" the buried booty, they offer it to the impoverished farmers on condition that they put up immediate money to pay for masses for the dead man's soul. The tricksters then pocket the money and drive back to the city, heedless of the hardship they've inflicted on people whose hardscrabble existence leaves them not a single lira to spare.

Other cons follow, along with revelations about the hoaxers. Each emerges as a fully rounded character, as does Bruno's wife, Iris, who has strong suspicions but no definite knowledge regarding her husband's illicit livelihood, rather like Carmela Soprano of The Sopranos. Tensions start growing among the three fraudsters, and the law eventually catches up with one of them. Although the overall mood of the film is lightly suspenseful, the climax arrives with a joltingly unexpected plot twist and the finale is starkly tragic, relieved only by the knowledge that a sort of rough justice has finally been served on at least one of the crooked main characters.

Italian studios have always liked to shoot their films without sound and dub in the dialogue later, which explains the discrepancy between voice and image that are a trademark of Italian movies. Under this system filmmakers can easily bring in foreign actors who don't speak Italian fluently, and Fellini took full advantage of that when he cast Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart in La Strada and then invited Basehart back for Il Bidone along with Crawford, who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his work in Robert Rossen's political drama All the King's Men (1949). Crawford's scowling face and burly frame are ideal for the immoral Augusto, and Basehart complements him with an innocent handsomeness - at one point his character brags about looking like an angel - that induces victims to trust him despite their better judgment. Masina is also excellent, steering away from the mugging of La Strada and paving the way for her award-winning performance in The Nights of Cabiria. Fellini's growing artistic confidence was clearly helped by his frequent collaborators behind the camera: screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, cinematographer Otello Martelli and composer Nino Rota, whose score for Il Bidone is an indispensable part of its dark magic. All make superb contributions to this unjustly neglected gem.

Director: Federico Fellini
Producers: Silvio Clementelli, Charles Delac, Mario Derecchi, Goffredo Lombardo
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
Cinematographer: Otello Martelli
Film Editing: Mario Serandrei, Giuseppe Vari
Production Design: Dario Cecchi
Music: Nino Rota
With: Broderick Crawford, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Franco Fabrizi, Sue Ellen Blake, Irene Cefaro, Albert De Amicis, Lorella De Luca, Giacomo Gabrielli, Riccardo Garrone

By David Sterritt