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THE NIGHT PORTER

Upscale Nazi-sploitation thatís been denounced as sleazy and sensationalistic. Both criticisms are valid, yet the film works. My biggest complaint, in fact, isnít with the sleaze but with writer-director Liliana Cavaniís pretensions, which threaten to overwhelm the film on many occasions.

The Package
     The darkness and perversity of THE NIGHT PORTER shouldnít come as any surprise given that its writer-director was Italyís Liliana Cavani, whose other controversial films include THE CANNIBALS (1969), BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL (1977), THE BERLIN AFFAIR (1985) and RIPLEYíS GAME (2002). Its lead actors Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are likewise known for their adventurous film choices; both, in fact, had previously appeared in Luchino Viscontiís THE DAMNED, which until the appearance of THE NIGHT PORTER was the premiere Nazi-themed art film. Trash movie buffs may also notice the name Franco Arcalli, who edited THE NIGHT PORTER, as well as other freaky films like DJANGO KILL!, DEATH LAID AN EGG, TIS PITY SHEíS A WHORE and THE DRIVERíS SEAT.
     THE NIGHT PORTER was widely panned in the US, with most major critics dismissing it as sensationalistic trash, yet it found a fair amount of success in Europe, and was even later given prestigious DVD treatment by Criterion.

The Story
     Vienna 1957: the seemingly unassuming Max works as a night porter in a luxury hotel. His dull existence is upended one day when the attractive Lucia checks into the hotel--and immediately recognizes Max.
     Flashbacks reveal that Lucia was interred in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, where she was sexually abused by Max. The latter, we learn, posed as a doctor to carry out depraved experiments on his ďpatients,Ē of which Lucia is one of the very few survivors.
     Also present in the hotel are Maxís ex-Nazi comrades, who are keeping a close eye on his activities. The presence of Lucia concerns them greatly, especially when Max confronts her one night with the possible intention of killing her--which only results in them having violent sex on the floor of her hotel room.
     From there Max and Lucia become inseparable. She locks herself away in his apartment, where the two endlessly reenact the sexual shenanigans to which Max previously subjected Lucia. Among other things, they have sex on broken glass and Max attaches a long chain to Lucia so she canít leave the apartment.
     But Maxís Nazi pals are serious about wanting Lucia out of the picture. They decide to take Max out as well, inspiring our justifiably paranoid protagonists to barricade themselves in Maxís apartment, were they fall prey to starvation untilÖ

The Direction
     Much has been written about THE NIGHT PORTERíS artfulness, evident in the classical compositions that fill the soundtrack and overall air of refined depravity, but in reality the film isnít far removed from more down-and-dirty Nazi-sploitation flicks like LOVE CAMP 7 and ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS. Despite Liliana Cavaniís best efforts, it appeals to the same base urges that propel those other films.
     Still, the proceedings are fairly powerful when focused on the perverse relationship between its protagonists, with Dirk Bogardeís sleekly menacing air and Charlotte Ramplingís ethereal sexiness put to excellent use. Dialogue is kept to a minimum in their scenes together, which are effectively punctuated by haunting, almost impressionistic flashbacks.
     But there are distractions, such as the fact that Rampling doesnít appear to have aged in the nearly two decades separating the flashbacks from the 1957-set sequences, and also the near-inexcusable English dubbing. Worst of all are the distracting subplots involving a gay dancer pal of Max and his interactions with his Nazi comrades, which only serve to drag the proceedings down.
     Another complaint is with the filmís most famous sequence, the flashback of a topless Rampling singing and dancing in an SS cap and suspenders for an audience of Nazis, which is no longer shocking or audacious, having been outdone two years later in CABARET. For that matter, the entire movie was bested by 1989ís similarly themed IN A GLASS CAGE, beside which THE NIGHT PORTER is but a pale shadow.

 
Vital Statistics

THE NIGHT PORTER
Lotar Film Srl

Director: Liliana Cavani
Producer: Robert Gordon Edwars
Screenplay: Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati
Cinematography: Alfio Contini
Editing: Franco Arcalli
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Dirk Bogarde, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Giuseppe Addobbati, Isa Miranda, Nino Bignamini, Marino Mase, Amedeo Amodio, Piero Vida, Geoffrey Copleston 

     

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