The thing about Il Bidone is that it's perhaps the least Fellini-esque of anything the great Italian auteur made. It resists being placed comfortably within any of his noted periods. It doesn't quite possess the same shades of neorealism found in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, the other two films which often join Il Bidone to form a loose trilogy of loneliness by the director. There's no real affection shown and zero sentimentality. It's also not that close to the loose, party atmosphere of La Dolce Vita and 8½, and it certainly doesn't have the adventurous insanity of Fellini's later work. Still, it's a bear of a picture, both for admirers of Federico Fellini and those less enthralled or acquainted with his style. Il Bidone uniquely stares down its moral quandaries and comes out in favor of bleakness. It's rare to find a movie from this time and place so determined in its lack of compromise yet also lightly paced and genuinely entertaining.
Storywise, Broderick Crawford, the American Oscar winner whose gruff texture even now still seems bathed in pumice, plays a seemingly unfeeling con man named Augusto. He's joined by a painter they've dubbed Picasso (played by another Hollywood actor, Richard Basehart, who also appeared in La Strada) and a blonde, somewhat more volatile third man called Roberto (Franco Fabrizi). Picasso has a wife (Giuletta Masina) he loves who thinks he's making an honest living as a salesman. In reality, he's joining the other two in various schemes to bilk and swindle the vulnerable out of their money. They take from those who can ill afford to be conned, and they do it repeatedly. There's no direct moralizing from Fellini, at least in the moment. These plays are designed only to help our protagonists, and two of the three happen to be agreeable guys we more or less like. The trouble is that they're robbing less savvy farmers and villagers blind, with no apparent hesitation.
Any potential view resistance is combated by the general tone Fellini takes here. It's not at all somber, though it'd also be a stretch to say things feel light throughout the picture. Overall, there's no hesitation in including comedy here, even if the movie itself wouldn't be considered primarily as a vehicle for humor. If we were forced to liken Il Bidone, in tone and feeling, to another Fellini picture, the one which most comes to mind is probably I Vitelloni. Both carry weight without attacking the viewer through message and meaning. I Vitelloni has a far more personal and intimate feeling but it nonetheless shares the confident, evened out mood of Il Bidone, taking us through light and dark minus any sense of pressure in judgment.
If you try to scrape around for a feeling as to where Il Bidone lies, in terms of reputation, in Fellini's career, the general consensus usually places it below at least half a dozen others. In short, to my knowledge, it's never been regarded with rapturous enthusiasm, particularly in comparison to the more quintessential Fellini pictures. That's kind of unfortunate, though, because this is a pretty dynamic entry which should have little reason to be overlooked (particularly now, with this new Blu-ray being made available). Its darkness is especially impressive, and the film's ending rivals virtually anything from the rich annals of film noir. Crawford's presence, at least for those familiar with his Hollywood work and his involvement in noir-tinged pictures like The Mob, Human Desire and even All the King's Men, only elevates that feeling. He's simply great here, dubbed voice or not, and I found it impossible to witness the last few minutes without perceiving strong hints of noir.
The overall impact can indeed feel rather downbeat, but I'd hesitate to call Il Bidone a steadfastly depressing movie. It has its moments, certainly, but there are also more lively scenes like the New Year's Eve party, which at least superficially brings to mind the great party sequence in La Dolce Vita. And, yet, optimism is not something easily associated with the film. We're dealing with thieves shown taking from people whose lives will be consequently crushed. Even the final, "redemptive" effort from Crawford proves bogus. One can't help but view these people as awful - like low-rent mobsters scamming the gullible (or, alternatively, like the soulless pricks we've just seen in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street). It's quite impressive that Fellini and his co-writers could spin something as grey and unsettling as what we get here.
This Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format release of Il Bidone from Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series feels a bit like a way overdue acknowledgement of the picture's artistic worth. It had previously been issued on DVD by the BFI in the UK and via Image in R1. Neither edition felt quite like a must-own. This one does. The MoC Blu disc is, unfortunately, locked to Region B.
The film comes to us in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. It looks pretty grand. The contrast is stable and impressive, lacking any nagging concerns of blown-out whites. Detail similarly exceeds expectation. It's crisp, clean and consistent. No significant instances of damage are evident. In all, the presentation is a joy to watch and almost certainly exceeds the previous editions available in the English-language market.
Audio arrives in an Italian LPCM mono track. It's lean and unpretentious. The film, like all Italian productions of this time, was dubbed so minor awkwardness is to be expected but nothing goes inherently wrong while listening. The mix is certainly up to par, registering clearly. Music and dialogue emerge at an even, pleasing level of volume. Subtitles are offered in English.
Extras are certainly not overwhelming but MoC has at least carried over the lengthy interview (39:49) with Fellini's assistant Dominique Delouche which had been done for the BFI edition. Also on the disc is an Italian trailer (3:16) for the film.
Inside the case a 48-page booklet contains perhaps the real meat of the supplements. We're treated to a new essay by Pasquale Iannone which runs over nine pages. An interview with Fellini by Delouche lasts another nine, and Andre Bazin's original 1956 review of the film goes seven more. Several pages of writing by Fellini close things out alongside gorgeously presented stills and credits for both the movie and the release. Superb all in all.