THE NIGHT PORTER (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974, Vol. 41, No. 490. — J.R.


Portiere di Notte, Il (The Night Porter)


Italy, 1973

Director: Liliana Cavani

Cert—X. dist—Avco-Embassy. p.c—Lotar Film. A Robert Gordon

Edwards/Esa De Dimone production. A Joseph E. Levine presentation

for Ital Noleggio Cinematografico. p—Robert Gordon Edwards. p. staff

Umberto Sambuco, Dino di Dionisio, Roberto Edwards, (Vienna) Otto

Dworak. asst. d–Franco Cirino, Paola Tallarigo, (Vienna) Johann

Freisinger. sc–Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati. story–Liliana Cavani,

Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani. ph–Alfio Contini. co1–Technicolor;

prints by Eastman Colour. col. sup–Ernesto Novelli. ed–Franco Arcalli.

a.d–Nedo Azzini, Jean-Marie Simon. set dec–Osvaldo Desideri. m/m.d

Daniele Paris. cost–Piero Tosi. sd. ed–Michael Billingsley. sd. rec

Fausto Ancillai. sd. re-rec–Decio Trani. post-synchronisation d–Robert

Rietty. sd. effects–Roberto Arcangeli. l.p–Dirk Bogarde (Max),

Charlotte Rampling (Lucia), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti (Hans),

Giuseppe Addobbati (Stumm), Isa Miranda (Countess Stein), Nino

Bignamini (Adolph), Marino Mase’ (Atherton), Amedeo Amodia (Bert),

Piero Vida (Day Porter), Geoffrey Copleston (Kurt), Manfred Freiberger

(Dobson), Ugo Cardea (Mario), Hilda Gunther (Greta), Nora Ricci

(Neighbour), Piero Mazzinghi (Concierge), Kai S. Seefield (Jacob).

10,603 ft. 118 mins. English version.


Vienna, 1957. Max, a sadistic SS officer during the war, conceals

his former identity in a job as night porter in a luxury hotel, where

he caters to the jaded tastes of some of his former colleagues, also

in hiding at the hotel. Together they have formed a self-styled

‘therapy’ group, accumulating evidence of their former atrocities

so that it can be destroyed while they exorcise their feelings of guilt.

Shortly before Max’s past is due to be reviewed by the group, the

unexpected arriyal at the hotel of Lucia Atherton — a concentration

camp victim of Max’s sadism who became his lover, and is presently

married to an opera conductor — stirs up Max’s memories as well

as her own. Lucia fails to reveal Max’s identity to her husband, and

when the latter leaves for Frankfurt she chooses to stay behind,

promising to join him later in his concert tour. Before long, she and

Max have resumed their sado-masochistic affair. Max refuses to

acknowledge Lucia to his former colleagues, and after she moves in

with him and ignores the efforts of the police to locate her, Max’s

fellow Nazis lay siege to the flat, fearful that the couple’s behaviour

will lead to their own exposure. After access to food, electricity and

water has been cut off for an extended, period, Max and Lucia

emerge from the flat in their former outfits — his SS uniform and

her party dress — and are shot down on a bridge.

A plot composed almost exclusively of implausible characters

and improbable events; sound recording and post-synchronisation

atrocious even by Italian potboiler standards; shots, dramatic

situations and gimmicks seemingly imitated or approximated from

Last Tango in Paris; sluggish pacing and laborious exposition . . .

Theoretically, one could be describing the latest anonymous

exploitation film. What chiefly distinguishes The Night Porter from

this familiar category are two significant factors, possibly related:

(1) the film has a Nazi-related theme which it pursues with

ponderous intransigence, and (2) it has been widely acclaimed for

its seriousness, audacity and overall achievement by critics on both

sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps the only credible explanation of this

second factor is a simple confusion of thought with deed, or subject

with treatment. There might, conceivably, be something to be said

for the film’s potential thematic interest apart from the sure-fire

formula of combining sex and Nazis — namely, the sexual impulses

that are suggested or touched upon by the Nazi horrors, and the

related ambiguities reflected in Max’s shift of role from persecutor

to victim. If Cavani had established her intrigue in either a believable

setting (e.g., a Grand Hotel containing more guests than her central

characters) or a stylistically coherent non-realistic one, and delineated

it with even a modicum of visible intelligence, originality,

consistency or taste, the strength of her theme alone might have

sustained the film. But quite apart from the numerous Last Tango

replays (which extend from a virtual substitution of jam for butter

in a ridiculously over-acted sexual interlude to a fancy pan across

a bridge in nothing less than the final shot), the performances are

sufficient to place the film in the realm of the grimly risible: Charlotte

Rampling, looking rather embalmed throughout, alternating

between two or three c1iché poses (usually Caged Animal or

Martyred Jeanne d’Arc), and Dirk Bogarde’s understandably

uncomfortable efforts to link together all the stray notions of his

character dictated by the script into some recognisable form of

behaviour, which results in the spectacle of a talented actor skating

in grease — and a parody of the various tics he has used to better

effect in previous sadist or masochist roles. As if this weren’t

enough, the concentration camp flashbacks are delivered with all

the trappings of the worst salon art: trite arrangements of bed-

frames to suggest prison bars bathed in kitschy hues of copper or

smoky blue, decked out with arty camp-victim poses, and

accompanied at one point by passages from The Magic Flute

as if to guarantee the project’s cultural credentials, and at the same time

certify the universal significance of a subject that the director

apparently felt needed some tarting up. Beside such a sensibility,

the visual rhetoric of a film like The Pawnbroker (with its otherwise

comparable flashbacks) seems in comparison a model of integrity,

formal daring, ethical courage and restraint.


This entry was posted in Notes. Bookmark the permalink.