Luigi Comencini's The Scientific Cardplayer is an unusual entry in both the commedia all-Italiana genre, and the careers of its two American stars, Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten. Times were hard for many of the Forties biggest stars by 1972: Cotten would appear in Mario Bava's cheap-and-cheerful Baron Blood the same year, and Bette Davis had already taken the unusual—for a star—step of advertising for work ten years earlier. Happily, the film offers the pair dignified and entertaining roles which build on their status rather than demeaning it.
The true heroes of the film, however, are Italian comedy legend Alberto Sordi and glamor icon Silvana Mangano, incidentally the wife of producer Dino De Laurentiis. They play an unbelievably impoverished couple with four kids to support, who supplement their various awful jobs (the youngest son literally scrapes a living shaving corpses at the local funeral parlor) in any way they can but still face an overwhelming series of hardships: their shack floods every year, his sister is on the streets, they owe money everywhere...
The plight of the very poor is hard to dramatize because those who aren't very poor don't like to think about it, but Comencini, working from a story and script by Rodolfo Sonego, has a brilliant strategy. His heroes live in eternal hope, because of an aging and ludicrously wealthy American lady who visits every year to play cards. Every year, she advances them a million lire so they can play. Every year she wins her money back. But if just once they could get lucky, she is a source of potentially unlimited winnings.
The problem is, Bette never loses, despite the fact that she keeps having heart attacks (the star, one of the least vain in Holywood history, strips back her makeup as the film goes on and her character sickens). The clock is ticking.
As the film begins, we wonder how the movie is going to create suspense out of an obscure card game whose rules are never explained. As it proceeds, it becomes unbelievably tense and exciting, and surprisingly funny despite the tragic set-up, never lingering over one game long enough for us to miss a focus on strategy or an understanding of the rules. Each bout is all-or-nothing: our heroes have no way of knowing if they'll be invited back for a rematch, and Davis's health is so fragile, the whole thing could be cut short any moment.
But Bette's character, like the real Bette, will not give up. She continues to play even at death's door, and she hates to lose. So that, as the dwellers in the slums debate tactics, the ruthlessness of some who argue that not only should our heroes win some money off this monstre sacre, but they should "destroy" her, take her for every last lira, starts to make sense. And Bette, we're told, is like the Ancient Gods who toyed with man's fate (good casting). She makes sense less as a human being, attended by the timorous Cotten, and more as a force of Fate, or Capitalism.
So curiosity about how the story can sustain itself gives way to a certainty that it can, and a total confusion about how it's going to end. If Bette represents the power of money itself, any happy ending for those without seems increasingly unlikely. And, indeed, each time Sordi and Mangano, our bickering team of representatives, seem on the verge of making good, the undying Bette lays waste their hopes and dreams—all without apparent malice: mostly, she seems to like them, because they're pretty good card players. But we notice that, as she travels the world playing, all her opponents are drawn from the ranks of the very poor...
This is a very entertaining and smart movie, rising to a desperate pitch of bleak hilarity as billions change hands. Bette Davis biographies give it short shrift, probably due to its limited availability, and because alas the American stars do not speak their own Italian lines. Davis, indeed, disliked Sordi for not speaking English: she was convinced he spoke it fluently. She called him "Albert Sordid." He's excellent as the mild, hapless and hopeless scrap merchant trapped in a high-stress situation, his tiny eyes darting about in panic amid his fleshy face. Mangano is astonishing too: her Italian fury is breathtaking, but her quiet, watchful moments are even better.
In the end, beating Bette is like winning the lottery—potentially life-transforming, but so vanishingly unlikely to occur to any of us that the hope is more a source of torture than sustenance. Those who have all the money, want all the money. So do we, of course. The difference is, they've got it.