Tennessee Williams’ play The Rose Tattoo is a comedy that leans heavily on ethnic stereotypes, featuring a fiery Italian mother falling for a dim-witted younger man. On Broadway, the production brought together Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton, and for the screen, it was Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster. Wallach’s performance, immortalized in a radio program, cemented him as a sexual force on stage, and he would carry that over for his screen debut years later, starring in Williams’ only original screenplay, Baby Doll. Lancaster, older and lankier, failed to capture the raw simmering sexuality needed to sell the role and the film.
Possibly the most wrong-headed adaptation of Williams’ work, Daniel Mann’s artless direction in The Rose Tattoo did little favors to the cast. The cinematography is flat and the structure lifeless. It straddles that uncomfortable line between canned theatre and faux realism, awkwardly segueing between the two, unable to even do a poor realization well. Mann’s talents don’t seem to lie anywhere, his direction of actors and cameras utterly devoid of sense or respect. Magnani, holding it together in her first English language role, bleeds charisma from her pores, but her discomfort with the dialogue slips in now and then. Lancaster, who seems to lack direction altogether, has a parody of a parody of an Italian accent that never even sticks from one scene to the next anyway.
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The Rose Tattoo has always been among my favorite Williams plays, if only because it deals with a sexual obsession with a light touch. Though built on the tragic death of Serafina, in the play she learns to love, fuck and live again — an understated but powerful journey. The titular rose tattoo is a fanciful touch, as the idea of this tattoo — her husband wearing being so intimately tied to the flesh — signals its carnal importance. As we realize that the tattoo continues to live on with one of his mistresses, it is important that Williams does not vilify that woman either. Also in grieving, she too is taken by the sensual magnetism of Rosario Delle Rose before he passes.
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At its heart, The Rose Tattoo touches on the incredible catharsis of sex. Torn away from two women, the men’s emotions and bodies become bottled up and neglected. Sex has the power of redemption, and yet such a theme is conspicuously absent from Mann’s adaptation. Compare this to Elia Kazan’s adaptations of Williams’ material — still confined by the production code — that seem to burn through the celluloid with burning erotic power. Here, Magnani brings the sex, but she has no give and take, and no thematic grounding for it to grip onto. It might even be why the film feels so desaturated, as The Rose Tattoo lacks color literally and metaphorically. The challenge of tackling a play about sex is a heavy burden for certain, but it’s clearly not impossible. An incredible failure, The Rose Tattoo has value in understanding the confines of the production code and the importance of good direction.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.