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La visite de la vieille dame (1971)

As a young woman, Clara left her hometown in disgrace. Now she is old and unimaginably rich, as for the first time she returns. The town is nearly bankrupt and in urgent need of money. ... See full summary »

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Cast overview, first billed only:
...
Clara
Louis Arbessier ...
Alfred III
Pierre Asso ...
Boby, le valet de chambre
Jean Tissier ...
Koby
...
Loby
Sacha Briquet ...
Le mari de Clara
Pierre Duncan ...
Roby
Jacques Andriot ...
Toby
Marie Lavollée ...
La femme de chambre
Fanny Robiane ...
Mathilde
Albert Médina ...
Le maire
Odette Laure ...
Annette, la femme du maire
Pierre Hatet ...
Le proviseur
...
Le pasteur
Pierre Garin ...
L'adjudant de gendarmerie
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Storyline

As a young woman, Clara left her hometown in disgrace. Now she is old and unimaginably rich, as for the first time she returns. The town is nearly bankrupt and in urgent need of money. Everybody hopes Clara will come to the rescue. And she will. However, there is a condition: somebody must kill the man who was her lover all those years ago.

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5 January 1971 (France)  »

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Version of Návsteva staré dámy (1999) See more »

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Beggar thy neighbour
9 September 2005 | by See all my reviews

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's dark comedy 'The Visit of the Old Lady' has been filmed several times, and staged frequently: it was the last play performed on Broadway by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. At the time that I write this, there are plans afoot for a musical version to open on Broadway, starring Angela Lansbury. Here's hoping.

This French television production benefits from the brisk direction of Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian who is surely best known for the films he directed in Britain in the 1940s.

SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. The action takes place entirely in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else and nobody has any secrets. The town's economy is in sharp decline, and everyone is in debt to the merchants. There is much excitement over the imminent arrival of Clara Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world. She is a native of this town; forty years ago, she and handsome young Alfred Ill (what an unfortunate name!) had a sexual liaison that resulted in her pregnancy. (For those who are reading this web page in a sans-serif font, this character's surname is 'ILL' as in 'sick', not a numeral as in 'King George III'. In the original stage play, this character's name was Anton Schill, not Ill.) When young Clara tried to compel Alfred to marry her, he persuaded two of his young male friends to lie under oath on his behalf, swearing that they'd had sex with Clara too. She left town in disgrace, never returning until now. (Alfred's two friends vanished shortly after the trial, never heard from again.) In the intervening decades, through strategic marriages and guile, Clara has amassed a fortune. She has also lost a leg, and her health is declining. The burgomaster and the people hope that Clara can be persuaded to bequeath some money to the town, for old time's sake. Surely her former lover Alfred (now long since married to townswoman Mathilde) can persuade Clara to loosen her purse-strings?

Clara arrives with a pegleg and an elaborate retinue: her maid, her elderly butler Boby and her manservants Koby, Loby, Roby and Toby. Koby and Loby are burly studs who bear Clara in a palanquin, while Roby and Toby are blind eunuchs whose usefulness is not clear. (Cavalcanti's cynical direction implies something very sinister: namely, that Clara is sexually stimulated by the brawny physiques of Koby and Loby, but she compels the blind eunuchs Roby and Toby to give sexual service to these musclemen so that Koby and Loby won't try to pressure Clara for sex.) Shortly after she arrives, Clara makes a public announcement: she will happily give a large financial endowment to the entire town, and also give a large financial gift to each individual citizen. In exchange, they must grant her a small favour: they must murder Alfred Ill!

It develops that Clara is obsessed with revenge. Roby and Toby turn out to be the two witnesses who perjured themselves to disgrace her; Clara has abducted them, blinded them and castrated them. She wants Alfred dead -- killed by the townspeople who years ago took his side against her -- and she's confident that human greed will take its course.

At first the townspeople are horrified, and they decline Clara's proposal. But then, one by one, the townspeople start making purchases on tick, receiving credit on the expectation of Clara's endowment. Even the police chief has no objection to one teeny-weeny homicide. Alfred learns that, one by one, the people are turning against him. Even his wife...

This television production appears to have been filmed in a two-camera set-up, preventing Cavalcanti from indulging in the deft camera-work and editing that enriched his English films. The best visual device here is one that occurs in Dürrenmatt's script, a device which Cavalcanti stages well but cannot take credit for. One at a time, the people of the town acquire brand-new shoes: bright yellow sabots, which sharply contrast with their subdued clothes. (I saw a monochrome kinescope of this production, but the device still works.) Cavalcanti expertly stages a series of scenes so that, again and again, Alfred Ill has a confrontation with one or another character whose feet are concealed from our view, until -- stepping out from behind a desk, or lifting a skirt's hem or a priest's cassock -- the feet are revealed to display yet another pair of the fatal yellow shoes.

Much of this play's action takes place outdoors; an effect which Cavalcanti is unable to stage convincingly in the small television studio where this production was mounted. But the actors give an impressive ensemble performance, and the two leads -- Louis Arbessier and Mary Marquet -- are superb in their scenes together. I'll rate this production 6 out of 10.


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