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Shoeshine (DVD Review)

16 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/17/11
$29.98 DVD
Not rated.
In Italian with English subtitles.
Stars Franco Interlenghi, Rinaldo Smordoni.

Historically notable as winner of the first foreign-language Oscar when the category wasn’t yet competitive but simply a one-shot honorary citation, director Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist landmark is also the film that Orson Welles pronounced the greatest he’d ever seen (while critic-of-the-day James Agee wasn’t far behind in praise). Today, some might argue that time has eroded some of the edge off its fastball — but only in comparison to other neorealist classics, including one or two De Sica made himself.

The setting is Rome just after World War II, where American G.I.s, Italian black-marketers and a couple horse folk we see at the very beginning seem to be the only ones with any money. Even so, Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and his older-adolescent pal Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) are trying to scrape funds together from their shoeshine operation (a lofty way to put it) so they can buy a horse they love. If these kids are naïve in some ways, the postwar milieu has inevitably made them street-smart in others. To earn necessary extra money at a time when homeless Giuseppe is sleeping in an elevator, they get involved in what they think is a mild black-market scheme in which Pasquale’s older brother is a player. When it leads to the apartment robbery of a fortune teller whose own hands aren’t especially clean, the so-called minor caper lands them in a reform school where not a whole lot of reforming is getting done.

If this were a vintage Warner Bros. rendering set in say, upstate New York, there would be a transparently crooked/nasty warden like Barton MacLane opposite some other Warner stock company actor playing an administrative progressive who’s at odds with him. We see a progressive or two in this movie as well, but in actuality, none of the authority figures here are portrayed as all-out villains. They’re overworked or have vague health problems or wives they can’t keep out of mischief — and there’s been such a spike in crime that the incarcerated youths have to sleep five to a cell or with tubercular cellmates or with much tinier roomies who crawl around at night and bite.

Thinking of Hollywood comparisons, you can see how this movie must have made the impression it did worldwide — which included sophisticated U.S. markets — after a world war had just rendered rose-colored worldviews a product of yesterday. By instructive coincidence, I ended up seeing this restored Shoeshine the same week I took a fresh look at 1949’s Bogart-starrer Knock on Any Door — the third movie directed by the great Nicholas Ray but the first one released, at least in America. The latter has a few strong scenes late in the narrative and is by no means any travesty; Ray had already filmed They Live by Night (which is almost a j.d. film) and would later do Rebel without a Cause, so he may have been more attuned to the subject than any Hollywood filmmaker. But as a delinquency drama and adaptation of what had been a fairly gritty Willard Motley novel that made a big impression on me as a kid, Door feels slicked up, studio-bound and compromised.

Shoeshine, by contrast, is the real deal — though I suspect the pungently worded subtitles this version carries didn’t make it to theaters in 1947 (the same year Hollywood was giving us Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife). There is also full-frontal male nudity during an inevitable shower sequence — and this at a time when even Trigger wasn’t taking it off.

Speaking of subtitles, the ones here are in easy-to-read yellow atop a black-and-white image — an approach I wish that more vintage foreign releases would utilize. And if the soundtrack of this restored/remastered release has tin elements from time to time, this was probably just as true at the time. Visually, this is a very striking release. Watching it, I actually whistled out loud a couple times because I didn’t think a low-budget movie of from the ‘40s could still glisten so much. Certainly, it didn’t on Image Entertainment’s 2001 release, which I still have and is now rendered instantly obsolete. And the new commentary by scholar Bert Cardullo is also a model of its kind — pointing out things we’ve missed that are right in front of us but trapped in our subconscious, so that we go, “Oh … yeh … right.”

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