With regard to the whole issue of dubbing, conventional wisdom tells us that foreign films are best viewed in their original language. And I tend to agree with that.
But there are some major exceptions to that rule – most of them Italian. That’s because Italian films are (or were) generally shot without synchronized sound. If an Italian film had an international cast, each actor would speak his or her own native language during the shooting, and, more often than not, would only dub his or her own voice for the version that was released in that actor’s language. In short, virtually ALL Italian films are dubbed, and in deciding whether to view the English-dubbed version or the Italian version (also dubbed), your choice should be based on who is playing the lead, not the country of origin.
Regrettably, the folks who put out DVDs don’t always give us that choice. Here are a few examples.
La Strada (Federico Fellini 1954) – La Strada (“The Road”) is a story about traveling circus performers. The three main characters are a brutish strong man (Anthony Quinn), the simpleminded waif he adopts and exploits as his clownish assistant (Guilieta Masina), and a high-wire artist (Richard Basehart) whom the strong man sees as his rival. If you watch the Italian version, you get to hear Masina voicing her role in Italian. Unfortunately, you will also miss Quinn playing his role, possibly the most iconic performance of his career, in English. Since Masina’s role is mostly mime, and the English-language version allows us to hear Quinn’s and Basehart’s roles dubbed by Quinn and Basehart themselves, the English-language version is vastly preferable.
Criterion realized this when it released La Strada on laserdisc with the option of listening to either the Italian or the English audio track. (I understand the same is true of Criterion’s first DVD version). If you are listening to the English soundtrack and you come to a section of the longer Italian cut where there is no English audio, then you will briefly hear Italian for that section. I wish that all the films discussed in this post were released that way.
Unfortunately, according to Amazon and Criterion itself, Criterion’s “Essential Art House” DVD version of La Strada, scheduled to be released this February, has only the Italian audio track. Let the buyer beware.
Fellini’s Casanova (Fellini 1976) – Fellini’s Casanova was filmed in both English and Italian with no less than Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) penning the English-language dialogue. The performance of Donald Sutherland as Casanova, one of his finest, is the heart of the film, yet the only version that plays on cable television these days is the Italian version in which we do not get to hear Sutherland’s voice. Let’s hope that if this film is ever released on DVD in the United States, the DVD makers do justice to Sutherland (and Burgess) by including the English language audio track.
Spirits of the Dead (Fellini, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle 1969) – Spirits of the Dead is a compilation film based on three stories by Edgar Allen Poe. The only version released on American DVD to date is the European version, originally titled Histoires Extraordinaires, in which everyone speaks French. With respect to the first story in the trilogy, “Metzengerstein,” directed by Roger Vadim and starring his then-wife, Jane Fonda, the French version is fairly interesting, since Fonda dubs the French herself, and she speaks the language surprisingly well. With respect to the second story in the trilogy, “William Wilson,” directed by Louis Malle, the French version is decidedly preferable, since you get to hear the segment’s stars, Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, speaking their native tongue.
However, the third story in the trilogy, Fellini’s “Toby Dammit,” is a travesty in French. Like his Casanova, Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” is built around the performance of a single actor, in this case Terence Stamp, who performs his role in English. In fact, the very premise of the story as conceived by Fellini is the alienation of the central character, a substance-abusing English actor promoting a film in Italy, who speaks English while everyone else around him is speaking Italian, a language he doesn’t understand. It makes no sense story-wise to hear them all speaking one language. (French, no less.) In English, this is indisputably Terence Stamp’s most memorable and essential screen performance, an acting tour-de-force. If that weren’t enough, the English language version of the trilogy, originally released by AIP, includes an intro and an outro spoken by Vincent Price. I know there are countless fans out there like me who wish someone would release AIP’s English-language version of this film.
And speaking of AIP,
Black Sabbath (Mario Bava 1963) – This is the horror trilogy that arguably inspired Spirits of the Dead. The first story “A Drop of Water” is mostly wordless. It’s terrifyingly great in any language. The second story, “The Telephone,” which is also the weakest of the three, makes little sense in English. That’s because AIP re-cut the English language version drastically in order (reputedly) to eliminate some lesbianic elements. You will want to see the European version of the film (the only one presently in release on DVD) in order to appreciate this one. However, the third story, “The Wurdalak,” features Boris Karloff in the title role, a Russian vampire. To hear Karloff’s voice dubbed by someone else in a foreign language … well, it’s just not Karloff. For that reason alone, a release of the English-language version of this Bava masterwork is essential.
And finally, there’s –
Ludwig (Luchino Visconti 1972) – Visconti’s epic biography of Ludwig II, the so-called “Mad King of Bavaria,” is arguably the closest Visconti ever came to filming a self-portrait. When I first saw this film in New York, and later when it was broadcast on L.A.’s legendary Z Channel, the three principals – Helmut Berger as Ludwig, Romy Schneider as the Empress Elizabeth, and Trevor Howard as Richard Wagner – spoke their roles in English. While neither Helmut Berger nor Romy Schneider are native English speakers, both speak the language well, with Austrian accents that are entirely appropriate for the film. Berger’s effeminate tenor is, in fact, essential to his characterization.
I want to thank Koch Lorber for releasing a complete, carefully restored, full-length DVD version (238 minutes) of this visually stunning film. Yet, at the same time, I want to strangle them for releasing it with the Italian audio track, only. (Berger’s voice is dubbed by Giancarlo Giannini – of all people.)