If the first half of The Night Porter at last manages to set an acceptable pace by way of intercutting between the present and past lives of the characters, the latter half sags beneath the weight of a narrative gone sour and Liliana Cavani’s gropings for some way to end the thing. It is here, as Bogarde and Rampling are besieged inside the former’s apartment by his Nazi ex-comrades (they mean to have Rampling killed because she knows too much of Bogarde’s past and his association with them—a threat whose seriousness is never made quite tenable in the screenplay), that the Bogarde character loses any credibility he might have had as a sexually hung-up, former Nazi torturer with a soft spot in his heart and a streak of childish perversity which makes his villainy seem more ridiculous than menacing. Down to their last Hershey bar and half-empty jar of strawberry preserves, they still live to make love, spending the rest of their time lying about with starved, listless expressions or wide-eyed stares of encroaching madness. Bogarde wipes the kitchen table a lot—a reference to how, earlier, he had nervously wiped the table inside the restaurant while talking to Mario, another face out of the past whom Bogarde himself subsequently murdered because he knows too much; Rampling slithers and scrounges like a hungry cat.
Their inability to make it all seem likely is more Cavani’s fault than the actors’: placed in a ludicrous situation (besieged in a Viennese flat!), how can the characters appear other than ludicrous themselves? I have a creeping suspicion it was all intended to build toward the big payoff of seeing Bogarde, dressed in his old Nazi uniform, and Rampling, teetering like a wooden doll on strings, as they finally come down into the street and drive away to a bridge on the outskirts of the city where they are shot down in the bluish half-light of dawn. The image of them strolling together arm-in-arm like some wobbly fin-de-siècle couple on their way to the opera has an undertone of psychological grotesqueness about it which is more disturbing than the gaunt pallor of Bogarde’s half-starved face as he divides the last piece of bread with a shaky hand. After all, the grotesque caricature is the key to Cavani’s stylized conception of the Nazi past. The scene of the homosexual dancer performing in a huge white auditorium as motionless Nazi officers look on, and the cabaret sequence in which SS men and German soldiers seem eerily detached, ghostly and unreal, take on the shadings of a dream.
In addition to her mannered direction of actors (Rampling in particular), there is the look of the film. Her muted blue and gray interiors, the dimly lit chambers within the hotel where that strange collection of characters survive like a form of pale fungi, often suggest an atmosphere which can be linked thematically to the types of people she is dealing with—people whose pasts are better left in the shadows. And although some of the scenes are a bit murkier than they might effectively have been (to the point where you can hardly see what’s going on), I liked the way Cavani uses the contrast between light and darkness in some of her intercuts. The flashbacks to scenes between Bogarde and Rampling in the concentration camp (where Rampling is a prisoner and Bogarde a Nazi officer) are suffused with light—not anything warm which might redeem or somehow mitigate the pervasive obscurity and moral bleakness of the Vienna hotel in which most of the action takes place, but the cold, glaring light of a winter day. Perhaps part of the reason the last half of the movie seems to drag so much is a breakdown of the visual and narrative tension between past and present which Cavani had made so pronounced earlier. Rather than maintain this tension (from which the whole psychological thrust of the movie derives), she falls back onto a kind of contrived suspense whose conventionality turns her arty heaviness into, worse still, melodramatic heaviness, and which compromises the movie’s dim promise to deliver the goods.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann
THE NIGHT PORTER
Direction: Liliana Cavani. Screenplay: Italo Moscati and Liliana Cavani, after a story by Cavani. Cinematography: Alfio Contini. Production: Robert Gordon Edwards.
The Players: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Franco Arcadi.