An historical figure named Vitellio Scarpia, who lived in the 18th century, was turned into a “sadistic agent”—the words of English novelist Piers Paul Read—in a play by one Victorien Sardou. The plot of this play was borrowed by Puccini for his opera Tosca, and now, in his lively novel Scarpia (2015), Mr. Read has rescued Scarpia from Sardou’s calumny. He, not Floria Tosca, is the main character here, and instead of a brute, he is a humane, dutiful baron and skillful swordsman for the Papal States.
The lionized opera singer, Tosca, is here, to be sure; and she’s important. For one thing, after all, she is one of the women with whom Scarpia fornicates. In Catholic Italy. What the novel points up is that in European history numerous people grasped with one hand Catholicism and with the other hand sexual pleasure. The major characters here are nominal Catholics—or nominal Christians—exhibiting erotic faithlessness as frequently as they fall in love. Scarpia does this, with Tosca, after becoming a cuckold. The cuckold is still married to Paola, a Roman princess.
I believe that what Scarpia is about, besides an author’s effort to help a libeled person, is damnation in life (not after death) and, in contrast, salvation. Damnation in life means coming to a tragic end, a terrible end, after one has sinned. Humane he may be, but Scarpia is also responsible for an act of cruel deceit toward Tosca. It is Paola, the only woman Scarpia marries, who confesses and repents her way to the aforementioned salvation. This she does after being the Arletty of Rome and sleeping with French Jacobins who invade Italy with Napoleon. Meant, I think, to be a sincere convert, Paola is one of the few characters in the book who give rise to an affirmative element.
Read writes well about political actors, and still writes enjoyably about relationships between men and women. And, all in all, to the relationship between God and man he has not given short shrift, as most other writers must do. He has an understanding of it.
Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) does appear to be far more truthful about the American West than other Westerns (i.e., mythological Westerns). However, I don’t know which is more ill-written—the movie’s Leonard Cohen songs or the Altman-Brian McKay script. Er . . . it has to be the script.
Warren Beatty enacts a profane cynic who becomes a dominating businessman in a frontier town, and gradually he begins a relationship with a brothel madam (Julie Christie) which is pretty hazy. The film is boringly and laughably anti-capitalist and has a lot of lame, dopey dialogue. Although it isn’t Beatty’s fault, he doesn’t really know what kind of man he is portraying, and yet his acting is assuredly superior to that of Christie and Rene Auberjonois, who are merely going through the motions.
The costumes and production design are exactly what a non-mythological Western should have. Even so, I said the Beatty character, John McCabe, is a profane cynic; hence it comes as no surprise that Altman’s film is an offputting, foul-mouthed (and unfocused) mess.
Initially, Doris Day‘s acting in the 1953 Calamity Jane is self-conscious, rather phony, but it improves as the movie goes on; and needless to say she performs outstandingly in her musical numbers.
The choreography for the song, “Just Blew In From the Windy City,” really has Day travelling, doing everything but jumping through hoops, and the tune resembles the other tunes by being snappily fun. The nice ballad, “Secret Love,” is a truncated “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but both it and another ballad, “The Black Hills of Dakota,” deserve their places here.
Doris is a lot cuter than the real—and homely—Calamity Jane, although for a long time zero femininity emanates from her. Enter the undeniably feminine Allyn Ann McLarie to balance things out. A good singer, she arouses the interest of a great singer, Howard Keel (as Wild Bill Hickok).
Most of the films of David Butler, who directed CJ, I’ve never heard of, but I’m glad I’ve heard of this one. It is a winsome entertainment.