Once a year, a wealthy American (Bette Davis) comes to a poverty-stricken Italian village to play cards with a penniless married couple (Alberto Sordi, The White Sheik, and Silvana Mangano, Death in Venice). “The Millionairess” has never lost a game, but good luck doesn’t last forever. Right?
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Don’t waste this chance, take her for lots of millions…”
It’s always a pleasure to discover a movie that has somewhat slipped through the cracks. I just discovered this marvelous card-playing movie made in Italy by producer Dino De Laurentiis (Nights of Cabiria and Blue Velvet) called The Scientific Cardplayer. This is an engaging comedy-drama with a social message.
The Scientific Cardplayer revolves around the game of “Scopone,” a popular card game in Italy. I know how to play “Brisca,” which is similar to “Scopone,” so I was able to follow some parts of the game. But don’t panic because it isn’t really necessary to understand the game — the high stakes game is a mere excuse to explore pressing issues.
The game is presented as an allegory for the class struggle between the proletariat (blue-collar) and the bourgeoisie (upper-class). The characters represent various elements of modern society. It isn’t as symbolic-heavy as the seemingly endless chess game in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal (1957) or the brutal fistfights in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), but it is an interesting movie nevertheless.
One of the main points that the film is able to argue convincingly is the fact that poor people are often trapped in a poverty cycle while the rich keep getting richer and richer. The ending offers a curious (and very dark) solution to the problem — you will either laugh or sneer, you really don’t have any other options!
There is also a not-so-subtle dig at American capitalism. Some people are going to have a harder time than others embracing an Italian movie that paints the U.S. in a bad light, but for me personally, I think it is always interesting, and illuminating, to see how other countries perceive America. Besides, it’s all done in a satirical style and the humor tends to disguise the bitterness of the snide critique.
What stands out is the remarkably on-point performances of the main actors. Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano are excellent as the bickering married couple stuck in a place of anger and hopelessness. The actors convey beautifully the almost comic desperation of the couple’s hunger for a more dignified life.
Bette Davis is at her latter-day best as the wheelchair-bound American grand dame obsessed with playing cards. She was dubbed in Italian, and funny enough, the only time you hear her real voice is when her character starts cursing in English! And in what appears to be a nod to Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard, Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt) appears as Davis’s pathetic servant and ex-lover.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Scientific Cardplayer was a big hit in Europe, but the film was never officially released in the U.S. It deserves a place alongside fun card-playing movies like The Cincinnati Kid (1965), A Big Hand for a Little Lady (1966) and The Sting (1973) — The Scientific Cardplayer is a wonderful card-game movie that I’m sure fans of these types of movies will enjoy. Color, 115 minutes, Not Rated.