It Started in Naples (1960) ***

By this point in her career Sophia Loren was adopted by Hollywood primarily as a means of rejuvenating the romantic screen careers of much older male stars. John Wayne was over two decades her senior in Legend of the Lost (1957), Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck nearly two decades older in The Pride and the Passion (1957, and Cary Grant a full three decades in Houseboat (1958). But where Grant was sprightly enough and with superb comic timing and Loren had the charm to make Houseboat work, the May-December notion lost much of its appeal when translated to her Italian homeland and an aging Clark Gable.

While engaging enough, the tale mostly relies on a stereotypical stuffy American’s encounters with a stereotypical down-to-earth Italian although Loren adds considerable zap with her singing-and-dancing numbers. Lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable), in Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs, discovers the dead man has left behind eight-year-old boy Nando (Marietto) being looked after in haphazard fashion and in impoverished circumstances in Capri by his aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a nightclub singer.  Determined to give the boy a proper American education, Hamilton engages in a tug-of-war with Lucia.

In truth, Lucia lacks maternal instincts, allowing the boy to stay up till one o’clock in the morning handing out nightclub flyers and not even knowing where the local school is. Hamilton is in turns appalled and attracted to Lucia, in some part pretending romantic interest to come to an out-of-court settlement. To complicate matters, Hamilton is due to get married back home.

At times it is more travelog than romantic comedy, with streets packed for fiestas and cafes full well into the night, a speedboat ride round the glorious bay, another expedition under the majestic caves, a cable car trip up the cliffs to view spectacular scenery, and the local population enjoying their version of la dolce vita. But the piece de resistance is Lucia’s performance in the nightclub, ravishing figure accompanied by more than passable voice as she knocks out “Tu vuo fa L’Americano” (which you might remember from the jazz club scene in The Talented Mr Ripley, 1999). She has a zest that her suitor cannot match but which is of course immensely appealing.

Lucia is torn between giving the boy a better start in life, already insisting for example that he speak English, and holding on to him while street urchin Nando is intent on acting as matchmaker.  Most of the humor is somewhat heavy-handed except for a few exceptional lines – complaining that he cannot sleep for the noise outside, Hamilton asks a waiter how these people ever sleep only to receive the immortal reply: “together.”

Gable lacks the double-take that served Cary Grant so well and instead of looking perplexed and captivated mostly looks grumpy. But this is still Gable and the camera still loves him even if he has added a few pounds. He was by now a bigger global star than in the Hollywood Golden Era thanks in part to regular reissues of Gone with the Wind (1939) but mostly to a wider range of roles and he was earning far more than at MGM, in the John Wayne/William Holden league of remuneration. Loren was the leading Italian female star, well ahead in Hollywood eyes of competitors Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, and had the skill, despite whatever age difference was foisted upon her, of making believable any unlikely romance. Here, zest and cunning see her through. Vittorio De Sica (The Angel Wore Red, 1960) has a scene-stealing role as an Italian lawyer with an eye for the ladies.

Director Melville Shavelson (Cast a Giant Shadow,1966)  thought he had cracked the problems of the older man-younger girl romance having shepherded Houseboat to box office glory . While this picture doesn’t come unstuck it is nowhere near Houseboat. This turned out to be Gable’s penultimate film, not quite the fitting reminder of a glorious career, and he died shortly after its release. While Loren trod water with this picture she was closing in on a career breakthrough with her Oscar-winning Two Women (1960).

The Angel Wore Red (1961) ***

Given that this is filmed in black-and-white, it seems a curious title. So I’m assuming the color is a reference to a scarlet woman which, indeed, Ava Gardner (On the Beach, 1959) is, working in a “cabaret” in an unnamed town at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely enough, the decision to shoot in black-and-white works in the actress’s favor. She was one of the last relics of the Hollywood Golden Age when brilliant cinematographers used innovative lighting to capture on screen not so much great beauty but tantalizing emotion.

The close-up was almost exclusively the preserve of actresses who could convey deep feeling with minute changes of expression or simply through their eyes. Here, a couple of joint close-ups prove the point: Gardner’s face illuminated, struggling to contain passion; that of lover Dirk Bogarde (Song without End, 1960) merely the same as always.  

This Italian-American production is part homily, part reverential, part brutal. Bogarde plays a priest on the run from the invading Communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He takes refuge in a cabaret (code for brothel) where he is sheltered by Gardner. He has just denounced his faith so when captured is not executed as an enemy of the state, thus allowing him to begin a relationship with her. They share an unusual type of innocence, Gardner because, as what was known in those days as a woman of easy virtue, she has never known true love, Bogarde, for obvious reasons, the same. Their trembling acceptance of this wondrous state of affairs is the beauty of the film. No one can portray a fallen woman like Gardner, but even as a mature woman her steps towards true love are hesitant, almost believing it is tucked away beyond the rainbow far out of reach, while inner conflict had become central to the Bogarde screen persona.

The love story which would surely in any case have a tragic outcome unfortunately too often plays second fiddle to a subsidiary tale of safeguarding a sacred relic – about whose importance, strangely enough, both sides are agreed – and of arguments between various other political characters over the conflict. Joseph Cotten as a cynical journalist – are there any other kind? – bears testimony to the opposing perspectives while Vittorio de Sica has a glorious cameo as a no-nonsense general who nonetheless deplores the “dirty” war. Neither side comes out well in the war, the Communists, like a mob storming Dracula’s castle, destroy the cathedral, the Republicans committed to killing all prisoners so as not to hold up the advance of their troops. Only the clergy retain their principles even when tortured.  

Writer-director Nunnally Johnson had good reason for choosing to film in black-and white – it permitted use of newsreel footage of diving Stuka bombers and more importantly since much of the story takes place at night it creates a haunted background of dark alleys. Color would have destroyed such a vision. You could argue there is artistic purpose here, filming a country which has fallen into spiritual darkness. But that would not be true of the star – black-and-white allows rare opportunity to show what the camera adores in Gardner, her face, even in repose, absorbing the light, as if she were, indeed, redemption.