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three coins in the fountain

Jean Negulesco

What a curious artifact Three Coins has become. Jean Negulesco, the Rumanian director, made a number of tight, strong films, among them my favorite Joan Crawford spectacular, Humoresque (1946) and the even better Richard Widmark showpiece, Road House (1948). Three Coins in the Fountain is not like those. It's a mess, now. Parts of it are fantastic, and parts are all but unwatchable. I suspect that the unwatchable parts were contributed by the Fox house style. Nobody made better pictures than Fox in the late Forties, and All About Eve now looks like some sort of valedictory to a great run. By the middle of the decade, Fox was awash in CinemaScope, which can be unbelievably gorgeous - the prelude to the film, in which Sinatra sings the title song to the accompaniment to lots of beautiful Roman footage - but which can also be unbearably sappy and artificial, as most of the interior scenes are. The acting is amazing at times, but the plot is almost Disney-bad. In the end, I think it's a movie to own - because of the performances.

Three American girls in Rome. One is not a girl anymore, one is in-between, and one is just off the boat. The elder two have discovered that Italian romance is elusive. Thanks to a beguiling exchange rate, one can live very well on a secretarial salary, but what if the boss has a thing about secretaries dating "local employees"? No sooner has Maria (Maggie McNamara) arrived than Anita (Jean Peters) plans to leave. Dorothy McGuire, the senior sister in the apartment, works for a reclusive writer, John Shadwell (Clifton Webb), whom most people seem to think died years ago. It doesn't take Maria two seconds to realize that Giorgio (Rosanno Brazzi), a translator at the office, adores Anita, thus freeing her up to study the likes and dislikes of dashing Prince Dino (Louis Jourdan). The story is pure piffle, and its lack of interest in actual Italian life is rather off-putting, like very greasy calamari.

Maggie McNamara, to my mind, is not up to the demands of this movie. She's a shiny, brittle brunette, a nice-enough girl but not an accomplished actress. (She reminded me forcibly of Elinor Donohue, the elder daughter in Father Knows Best.) What she does might wow the audience at a collegiate theatre, but it's not nearly strong enough to withstand the CinemaScope scrutiny or compete with the lavish decors that are also so peculiar to Fox. It is very hard to believe that Louis Jourdan would take any interest in this slip of a girl.

Unless, that is, you're looking at Louis Jourdan, who is nothing less than magnificent in his mildly comic role. The suave "predatory prince" can't have been a difficult role for the actor, but he commits himself to it fully, and is never less than charming. In the best Jourdan performances, there is always an adorable twelve year-old peeking out from behind the five-o'clock shadow, and Jourdan lets him take over in the dénouement scene with Clifton Webb. It is very hard not to wax nostalgic about a time of such trim, self-possessed men.

Dorothy McGuire gives us a variation on the theme played by Katharine Hepburn in Summertime (another Brazzi film): the long-silent secretary who finally decides that its okay to let it be known that she is in love. There's a wonderful scene in which her face shifts from sophisticated detachment to puppy-dog concern and then back and then forth that is instantly moving. And she's the one who winds up drunk in a fountain.

You'd have thought that would be Jean Peters. Anita is a long way from Pickup on South Street's Candy, but it doesn't take long for Peters to get very earthy and emotional. Brazzi is wonderful with her, always a gentleman who sees the consequences of indiscretion even when Anita doesn't want to. It may be paternalistic, but the men in this movie are the ones who maintain decorum. A perfect mid-Fifties Fox product, Three Coins in the Fountain allows women to show that they're sexual creatures but protects them from their folly. Jean Peters comes to seem like a woman who's so impatient to be uncorseted that she's ready to burn it off her body.

An uneven film, basically a piece of formula, but one enlivened by flashes of quirky humanity and illuminated throughout by the Eternal City (with a cameo role for Venice). Three Coins in the Fountain has nowhere near enough brain to meditate on the confrontation of brash young Americans and ancient Rome, but at least it does a good job of illustrating the interaction. Americans, whenever they leave their home towns, are always in Rome, trying to find out what the Romans do and act accordingly. The three coin-tossing ladies do a very creditable job. (February 2007)

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