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The Bicycle Thief
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Behind the Camera On THE BICYCLE THIEF

It took careful planning and rehearsing to give The Bicycle Thief its realistic look. Crowd scenes were meticulously staged and drilled, including one for which director Vittorio De Sica hired 40 street vendors. The Roman fire department provided a "surprise" rainstorm for another scene. In addition, De Sica shot with as many as six cameras at once to get the untrained actors' spontaneous performances from several angles. Although the film looked like a documentary in places, the director's painstaking methods drove him over budget.

All of the Rome locations in the film were real. On one of the shooting days, British director David Lean showed up to watch De Sica film an outdoor sequence and was greatly impressed with how he handled the crowds in the street.

De Sica's son Manuel recalled in an interview the filming of scenes in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele: "...Papa told me about coming across, early in the morning, the director of photography of the film Carlo Montuori, completely frozen, clinging to his camera, devotedly waiting for the fleeting moment. He had stayed there in order to protect with his whole body the chassis (the magazine of film mounted on the back of the camera) from the rigours of the night. Dawn has a brief duration, and for this reason several days were needed to sew together long sequences which had cost many early forced awakenings for the entire troupe just to get a few minutes of footage...During the filming in Piazza Vittorio, he required the production secretary, Roberto Moretti, to stop the trams passing. Poor Moretti, who did not even have a permit to set up the tripod of the camera on the square, with great presence of mind disguised himself as a tram conductor, and began to redirect all the trams bursting with workers that happened to pass in proximity to the square. Before anyone guessed the reason for the existence of this man in the middle of the crossroads, the shooting was finished and Roberto arrested."

Future Italian director Ettore Scola, who was only fifteen years old at the time, recalled passing the Piazza Vittorio while on his way to school one day and wondering why it was so deserted that time of day. He said, "...only a worker, a street sweeper and a child were crossing the street, going in the direction of the market. A low and strangely close voice, like that of a prompter amplified by a megaphone, reached the actors and the crowd gathered behind the barriers: 'More slowly, Lamberto. Let Gino go ahead. Enzo, keep behind Papa.' The whisper was coming from a small tower on top of which, in a little wooden armchair, was seated a gentleman wearing a hat, a scarf, and a camel hair coat."

Director Sergio Leone, the father of the spaghetti western, was present during the filming of The Bicycle Thief. He recounted, "I was helping out for nothing on Ladri di biciclette, and I also had a tiny and much-noted part in the film...We were at Porta Portese, shooting the sequence in which the father of the boy wanders around looking for the bicycle. I was sixteen at the time, and was in the second year of grammar school. I was watching De Sica...when all of a sudden he said; 'Ah, here I'd like to see a group of ten or fifteen red priests, those of the Propaganda of the Faith, it has started to rain, and I'd like to use this stupendous light'...and the next day we shot the marvelous scene....of these red priests who, caught by the storm, shelter under a cornice, and two of them talk to each other, so that the child, fascinated by this strange language, is distracted and stops to listen to them...I was one of the two red priests engaged in conversation, a conversation that in fact consisted of reciting numbers, because we couldn't speak German, while the rest of the group was made up of school-friends of mine whom I had gone to recruit when De Sica had said that he didn't know at the time where to lay his hands on fifteen youths."

Lamberto Maggiorani, who played Antonio, was very shy and embarrassed throughout the shooting as he had no actor training or would often become anxious when he couldn't do what De Sica wanted him to do. The director, however, did not coddle him because he knew Maggiorani's real anxiety and nervousness before the camera would work well for his on-screen character. De Sica would later praise Maggiorani, saying "The way he moved, the way he sat down, his gestures with his hands hardened from work, the hands of a working man, not of an actor...I made him promise that after the film he would forget the cinema and would go back to his job." But during the filming of The Bicycle Thief, De Sica would still send a black limousine to pick Maggiorani up and bring him to the day's location.

Even though Maggiorani remained uncomfortable with the mechanics of filmmaking and acting during the filming of The Bicycle Thief, he nevertheless began to feel a merging of his own identity with that of his character Antonio. De Sica later stated that Maggiorani "confessed to me that he had experienced this sensation, acutely and poignantly, in the last scene in the film: Antonio, in a moment of revolt against his cruel fate, attempts robbery and is arrested and maltreated in front of his son. When, through his tears, Lamberto Maggiorani felt his hand seized by little Staiola, it seemed to him that it really was his son who took his hand, and his tears became real tears of burning shame. In a few months of patient effort, I had brought this man to the point of being able to forget himself in his role and to enter fully into the sad story."

De Sica still hadn't found the ideal actor to play Bruno when filming began on The Bicycle Thief. It was while he was shooting the scene in which Antonio searches for his friend who can help him locate the bike that fate intervened. "I was telling Maggiorani something," he recalled, "when I turned around in annoyance at the onlookers who were crowding around me, and saw an odd-looking child with a round face, a big funny nose and wonderful lively eyes. Saint Gennaro has sent him to me, I thought. It was proof of the fact that everything was turning out right." And so little Enzo Staiola was hired on the spot to play Bruno. At one point during the making of The Bicycle Thief, Enzo Staiola was almost run over twice while crossing the street. Both were accidents De Sica kept in the film.

by Frank Miller

SOURCES:
7 Masterpieces of 1940s Cinema by Inga Karetnikova (Heinemann)
Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach by Christopher Waggstaff (University of Toronto Press)

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