Tall and dark with a twisted smile, the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman (1922-2000) lent his rakish charm to roles as petty crooks, disabled aristocrats, and large-living hucksters, in a career that spanned five decades and as many countries. Gassman’s early and late Hollywood interludes included marriage to Shelley Winters and work with Robert Altman. Alongside movies in French, Spanish, and English, this series of 14 films showcases the Italian comedies and dramas that made his reputation.
Born in Genoa, Gassman left law school to study theater. In his breakthrough, Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice (1949), he and Sylvana Mangano burn up the screen with their vibrant eroticism. Gassman plays a slimy jewel thief, hiding out with his girlfriend (Doris Dowling) amid the Po Valley’s annual rice harvest. Mangano, torn stockings barely covering her pulchritudinous thighs, is the sensual peasant who falls for him. This neorealist drama is a moving examination of the vagaries of passion and the harsh conditions imposed upon a mostly female workforce.
After a hiatus playing Eurotrash in American movies, Gassman re-established his star credentials in Mario Monicelli’s classic Italian comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). He tempers his bulk with charm and warmth, as a punch-drunk boxer who plans a heist with an assortment of pathetic, would-be underworld characters (including Marcello Mastroianni and Toto), before everything goes awry amid Italy’s post-war economic woes.
Gassman made 16 films with director Dino Risi. He won Best Actor at Cannes for Scent of a Woman (1974), in which he plays a bitter army captain, accidentally blinded years ago. A young private (Alessandro Momo), ordered to accompany him from Turin to Naples, begins to guess at the journey’s secret, lurid purpose. Pace Pacino (who won an Oscar for the 1992 American remake), Gassman’s manic performance, mixing a crazed, wounded machismo with black humor and more than a hint of menace, remains unforgettable.