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The Visit (1964)
The Visit is a quiet little masterpiece of a revenge picture: kind of a cross between The Count of Monte Cristo and The Lottery with just a hint of one of those human vs. mob episodes of The Twilight Zone. It is the story of a fabulously wealthy woman who comes back to her hometown after having left it in disgrace some twenty years before. The town welcomes her with open arms, hoping she'll let bygones be bygones and fork over some much needed cash.
When just a girl of seventeen, Karla Zachanassian (Ingrid Bergman) had a love affair with a boy called Serge Miller (Anthony Quinn). When Karla became pregnant, not only did Serge desert her, he hired two jerks to testify at the paternity hearing that she had slept with them as well, thereby making her case impossible to prove. Branded a tramp, Karla was forced to give up her child (who later died) and was drummed out of town by all the respectable people.
Serge, meanwhile, married a shopkeeper's daughter (Valentina Cortese) and got on with his life. Karla, with no other options, became a prostitute. While on the job she met and somehow married a millionaire, spending the time thereafter observing people and market forces and plotting her revenge.
The town itself, a vaguely Slavic berg, had fallen on hard times over the years. With the news of the now famously rich Karla's impending visit, they pull out all the stops. Everyone knows the backstory and people are worried that she will not have forgiven Serge. They tell him to be cool and maybe not bring his wife along, in case she's still holding a grudge.
But Karla arrives all smiles and sophistication, bedecked in furs, entourage in tow, several Asian chefs, assorted servants and a pet leopard, obviously. She confides in Serge that she has every intention of being generous, a fact he reveals at the town council meeting on whose board he sits. They think it'll be a few hundred thousand of their vaguely Slavic currency, which would have been swell, so imagine their delight when she announces at dinner that she intends to dish out a total of 2 million: one million to the town, and the other to be split evenly among its citizens.
On one condition: to collect, Serge must be put to death.
The town is shocked, SHOCKED at that proposal. Why, the death penalty is barbaric and was abolished ages ago! How could she even suggest such a thing? It's unthinkable! That is, until they start thinking about it.
A handful of people start buying things on credit from Serge's store. Then more and more, until there's no more left to buy. His friends seem to be smiling a little too broadly at him lately. When all kinds of shiny new cars and luxury items are shipped into town and made available for no money down, Serge becomes so wigged out he tries to leave town, but is prevented by a mob of his "friends." It's creepy! Eventually, the council decides it's time to revisit their criminal code.
Because this picture is available streaming on Amazon, I am not going to tell you how the situation plays out. Suffice it to say that The Visit is a surprisingly effective expose of the collective conscience. As a co-production of France, German, Italy, and the United States, everybody in it -- English speakers included -- seems to have been heavily dubbed, but this is a fascinating political morality tale very well told with moments of great tension and not a little humor.
Plus great clothes.
Ingrid Bergman is even more luminous than usual in this picture. Maybe it's the embers of slow-burning hatred, maybe it's the leopard, I don't know, but I like vengeful Bergman very much indeed.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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