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Looking to enhance your TV’s IQ? Slip in one of the DVDs from the Criterion set “Rossellini’s History Films,” and watch the tube radiate intelligence.
Roberto Rossellini jump-started Italian neorealism in the aftermath of World War II with Open City and Paisan, then capped his career a quarter century later directing a half-dozen made-for-TV biopics that might be considered a form of didactic paleo-realism. Portraying selected thinkers of Antiquity (Socrates, the Apostles, Augustine) and the Renaissance (Alberti, Descartes, Pascal), these tele-histories are passionate gabfests that emphasize daily life over spectacle and conversation over drama. Truth is in the details. With their astute use of location, Rossellini’s amazingly lucid movies have an intimacy well-suited to the small screen and an immediacy rare in historical reconstruction.
The Criterion set includes three—Blaise Pascal (1972), the multi-part The Age of the Medici (1972), and Cartesius (1974). In its evocation of 15th-century Florence, The Age of the Medici—which devotes nearly as much time to the original Renaissance man, architect-aesthetic theorist-mathematician Leon Battista Alberti, as it does to banker Cosimo de’ Medici—is the most conventionally splendiferous of the three. Appropriate to celebrating the father of rational discourse, Cartesius is the most rigorously austere—perhaps an apology for the scene in Blaise Pascal in which the great Descartes plays straight man to the mystical skeptic Pascal, a kid nearly 30 years his junior. Actually, Blaise Pascal is the masterpiece of the series. Thanks in part to a poignantly diffident performance by French actor Pierre Arditi, it manages to make the life of the mind as physically disorienting as a trip to the moon. Saluting his own tour de force, Rossellini later said that “no one who is not a kamikaze would make a film about Pascal, a very boring character who never made love in his life.”
Another sort of excavated tele-treasure, newly available from Koch Entertainment on DVD, is the 1959 broadcast of the echt Hollywood novel that Hollywood never had the nerve to produce: What Makes Sammy Run? Author Budd Schulberg and his brother, Stuart Schulberg, wrote the adaptation, originally broadcast in living color, but not live, on NBC’s “Sunday Showcase.” The tapes have long since disappeared, and although the kinescopes (some rediscovered as recently as 2005) are in black and white, Larry Blyden is red-hot and blue as ruthless man-on-the-make Sammy Glick. (A stage actor who mainly played light comedy and musicals, Blyden delivers as ferocious a portrayal of mad ambition as the professionally amiable Andy Griffith did in the Schulberg-scripted A Face in the Crowd.)
The adaptation pulls a few punches regarding ethnicity and union-organizing, but as primetime network fare, it’s surprisingly “mature.” As usual with golden-age TV drama, New York actors and future TV stars abound: John Forsythe and Barbara Rush are the “good” Hollywood writers; Dina Merrill gives Blyden a run as the playgirl who out-Sammys Sammy; David Opatoshu represents old-school Hollywood; and Norman Fell, the future landlord of Three’s Company, plays Sammy’s moralizing older brother as a Lower East Side Jeremiah.