Arthur Miller Cites “The Bicycle Thief” as Everyman’s Search for Dignity
by Arthur Miller
Author of “Death of a Salesman”
Published Sunday, January 8, 1950 in The New York Times
An interesting job awaits some sharp investigator in defining the uniqueness of the Italian approach to the motion picture, an approach which has created some of the finest movies of the past few years. I have given some thought to the matter, first because I hope to write movies of my own in the future, and secondly, because my personal attitude toward films in general has been entirely altered by certain Italian productions. I have an idea that at least the second proposition holds for many people.
I had long since given up hope that the movie could really create intensity. It had seemed to me that the very nature of the medium tended to atomize emotions. Its overwhelming need to move seemed to make the increasingly intense contemplation of character or deed entirely too difficult.
“Open City,” however, demonstrated that I was wrong. It told a broad story, one that included many principal characters, but at the same time it was not episodic, due to the unity of its story and, more important, it created round personalities who somehow stood still long enough for me to examine them and decide about them as characters.
Not an Accident
But ‘”Open City” seemed so superior that wisdom demanded it be marked up as an accident of the form, much as I had labeled “The Informer” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” which until “Open City” had seemed to me nearly alone among pictures worthy of serious respect. Since that first Italian picture, “Shoe Shine,” “Paisan” and a few others have proved that, although the Italian approach can falter and is by no means a magic key to success, it is nevertheless a thing in itself and a consummation of many trends that have been operating for years.
The most obvious quality in this approach is its attempt to document a fictional story with a real environment. These pictures have literally come out of the streets.
There are several superficial innovations in these pictures, but the one which I should like to bring up has to do with subject. They are all about what we would call common people. But Hollywood also makes pictures about ordinary folks. The real point of separation is that while Hollywood stories “use” common people, the Italians move into their lives, imposing no formula of social success, bringing with them no fears of infantile taboos, and posing always a simple, but to Hollywood a revolutionary, question: Why and how is man made so unhappy?
If Hollywood “realism” poses any question at all, it is, How may man escape life?, which is not a question but a wish, composed of fears, sentimentality and fear. The proof that it is the attitude toward man—the subject— which makes the difference, lies in the many Hollywood attempts to capture the Italian mood by shooting on actual locations, which is like the clown putting on the king’s cloak in order to take power.
The Italians, when they have made fine things, have made honest things. In Italy last summer I saw several new pictures, the best of which is “The Bicycle Thief,” which opened here recently. This film will make clear, even to professional film makers here, what I mean. “The Bicycle Thief” is about a man, a worker, who must have a bike in order to work at his job. He is desperate, pawns everything to regain his machine, goes to work, has the thing stolen from him while his back is turned, and then goes on a search through Rome to find it. That is about all there is to it. But it happens to be very close to a lyrical masterpiece.
And this is not because we see Rome as it is, or poor people, or rags. It is because these actual details are organized by a humane view of life. The film is unafraid to examine, openly, straightforwardly, the terrible, distorted, destructive world which man has made for himself. It has a point of view. It is genuinely angry, in fact, ferocious. And this anger is not cloaked, “angled,” got at by indirection and ladies’ magazine plot masquerades, but is expressed by means of a head-on collision with the facts of life as they exist. In short, while Hollywood may sometimes deal with these facts by analogy, the Italians deal with the facts, period.
For many years, while writing my plays, I had tried to find means for expressing my ideas about life. It is the central process of every writer’s development. I came, painfully, to the area where there was nothing left, no plots, no cagey angles, but only the possibility of saying openly and clearly and simply what I had in mind to say, uncloaked, naively. “The Bicycle Thief” is especially dear to me—as it will be to many others—because it is so sweetly naive. Its makers understood about “relief.” The only admissible relief in a dramatic play or picture arrives when the work discovers something good, something fine, something wonderful about the human animal. Relief is inadmissible and falsifying when it is picked up by means of form-destroying vagaries of plot, which have crumpled most of the seriously intended pictures I have seen.
Gains by Remorselessness
As a consequence of this remorselessness, “The Bicycle Thief” seems truer and truer as it proceeds, and not cleverer and cleverer. Its story is its central character, and he is the story—the desperate, unbankable search of a poor man for his dignity.
And because it is remorseless and refuses to covet the alleged weaknesses of the audience (which are really but the weaknesses of the artists) it seems to grow larger than itself; this poor man, without a noble speech to his home, begins to seem like Man. His search for his stolen bike assumes shimmering proportions of symbolism. And we are lifted out of “realisms” by realism itself into a world of simple comparisons: for instance, are we not all in search of our dignity? And does this not come to us by means of our work which is our justification and our basic worth? This man’s work has been stolen from him, and the city of his home turns into a jungle around him, and he has nothing, nothing at all. This picture, perhaps above all others, performs the central function of art. Without warping the life it depicts, it discovers the meaning of that life, its significance for the race.