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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The Night Porter is a strange, richly textured affair, and one sign of its dark brilliance is its success in holding some imposing limitations at bay. For one thing, its plot is highly contrived: an Austrian hotel night porter (Dirk Bogarde) is a Nazi war criminal; he is preparing for an annual meeting of old Nazis who have organized in order to continue escaping detection; but his standing with the group is put in jeopardy by the arrival at the hotel of a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he had had a sadomasochistic love affair. Matters are made even trickier by the somewhat devious contrast of the couple’s unconventional eroticism and the Nazi group’s hypocritical puritanism. But Liliana Cavani’s graceful and intelligent direction and the performances of Bogarde, Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti and Amedeo Amodio give the proceedings (script by Cavani and Italo Moscati) a depth that they might not have otherwise had.