Il bidone was Federico Fellini’s direct follow up to La strada, and forms a neat quartet with I vitelloni (53) and Le notti de Cabiria (57); dramas with some comic touches about the lives of criminals, prostitutes and dropouts. As with all these, it’s filmed it black and white, looks absolutely gorgeous, benefits from great cinematography by Otello Martelli, music by Nino Rota and a script co-written with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. They may lack the outrageous flare of Fellini’s later work, but in many ways their taut, restrained (ish) approach makes them more succesful than his better known work of the 60s and 70s.
Augusto (Broderick Crawford) is an aging con man who works with two younger associates: Picasso (Richard Basehart), a family man who wants to become a painter, and Roberto (Franco Fabrizi), a gadabout who harbours dreams of becoming the next Johnny Ray. The three of them make their money by tricking the poor out of the little money that they have, and their favourite ruse is to dress up as priests, pretend that a dying burglar has buried some treasure on a smallholders land and that the owner’s can keep it if they’re willing to pay for hail mary’s to be said for their beenfactor (the treasure, of course, is worthless junk).
Augusto, however, is becoming an increasingly desperate man. He sees his former colleagues doing a lot better than him, moving out of ‘the trade’ into more profitable industries, and his numerous victims are after his blood. Furthermore, he has a daughter (Lorella De Luca), and is gradually coming to realise that he’s wasted much of his life. All of this leads him to play one last, desperate game…
In many ways, Il bidone actually feels like a kind of replay of La strada. Crawford’s Augusto is much like Anthony Quinn’s Zampanò, a bullish man totally disconnected from his feelings, who gradually comes to realise that his isolation isn’t such a good thing. The characters spend a lot of the time travelling around Italy or carousing in bars, making money off the poor and destitute. Unlike La strada, though, it didn’t go on to win any Oscars, although I have to confess that I much prefer it to that film (mainly becuae I found Giulietta Masina’s naif act rather irksome in that film).
As always, there are some astonishing oments of pure cinema, most particularly a party scene that lasts about ten minutes and is almost perfectly put together. The climax, in which Augusto, suffering from terrible injuries, crawls towards his fate, anticipates similar sequences in Spaghetti Westerns such as The Hellbenders.
Broderick Crawford, who had to be accompanied by a bodyguard throughout filming to keep him off the booze, is excellent. Basehart puts in a rather affected performance, much as he did in La strada, but it seems somehow appropriate, and Franco Fabrizi – who seemed to be in just about every Italian film at the time this was made – is also effective. Genre fans will enjoy watching a very young Lorella De Luca, who went on to star in numerous teen musicals throughout the fifties, marry Duccio Tessari and appear in his Ringo westerns opposite Giuliano Gemma. Other familiar figures involved include production manager Giuseppe Colizzi (who went on to direct Aces High and Boot Hill), editor Giuseppe Vari and ‘advisor’ Brunello Rondi (who went on to have one of the most curious careers in Italian cinema.
(ps. Interesting to note the way the poster prioritises Giulietta Masina, even though she only really has a peripheral role).