Immigrant radical Bartolomeo Romagna is falsely condemned and executed for a payroll robbery. Years later, his son Mio sets out to find the truth of the crime and to bring to account the gangster Trock Estrella
Burgess Meredith ... Mio Romagna
Margo ... Miriamne Esdras
Eduardo Ciannelli ... Trock Estrella
Maurice Moscovitch ... Esdras
Paul Guilfoyle ... Garth Esdras
Edward Ellis ... Judge Gaunt
Stanley Ridges ... Shadow
Mischa Auer ... A radical
Willard Robertson ... Policeman
Alec Craig ... Oak
John Carradine ... Bartolomeo Romagna
Myron McCormick ... Carr
Helen Jerome Eddy ... Maria Romagna
Barbara Pepper ... A girl
Fernanda Eliscu ... Piny
Maxwell Anderson's classic play is reduced to a 77 minute running time but the result is one of the tightest, tensest films to come out of the early talkie era. Acting ranges from excellent to outstanding (Burgess Meredith recreates his stage role). Although the film deservedly earned Oscar noms for Art Direction and Score, it excels most in its black and white cinematography (which did win the Venice Film Festival Award) and its editing (both of these categories should have been Oscar nommed as well). An excellent little film - one of the best of that early talkie era - it bespeaks the eloquence of what was to yet to come in the genre of film noir.
From RKO studios in 1936 (though it looks as though it were made in the earliest ‘30s), during the heyday of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, came something rich and strange. Maxwell Anderson's very serious poetic play was boiled down into a movie that's part Depression-era gangster flick, part Shavian social-issue drama, and part neo-Greek tragedy.
The igniting fuse was the Nicola Sacco/Bartolomeo Vanzetti case of 1927, where two immigrant anarchists were condemned (some would say railroaded) to death supposedly for a robbery in which guards were killed. Anderson pushes it back to 1920 and focuses on a single man, Bartolomeo Romagna (John Carradine), whose auto, filled with anarchist/socialist tracts, is stolen for a similar crime by gangster Eduardo Cianelli. When condemned, Carradine eloquently rebukes the judge (Edward Ellis).
The film now flashes forward to 1936, when Romagna's down-and-out drifter son (Burgess Merdith), spurred by revisionist theories of the case, journeys to New York to confront the surviving principals, including Cianelli, Ellis and a reluctant witness (Paul Guildfoyle). All converge for a reckoning preordained by The Fates....
Anderson has heightened his dialogue to lend it immortal aspirations (which may have been a grandiose miscalculation – the dominant rhetorical mode of the twentieth century, obvious even by 1936, is flatting). The high-flown posture extends to the look of the film, too – a stylized nightscape that's a harbinger of the look of film noir to come a few years later. A low-ceilinged tenement-basement flat is oppressively claustrophobic (markedly so, given the number of actors crammed into it), while the cobblestones and stone arches of the low-rent streets near New York's waterfront glisten wickedly in the pelting rain. (At times the slums look like the central squares of those Transylvanian villages so common in Universal horror pix of this era).
Almost every element of Winterset should seem laughable now – but doesn't (though there are a few close shaves). There's an early sequence involving a hurdy-gurdy that lures the slum-dwelling underclass out of its burrows to dance that's hauntingly powerful – as is the face of Winterset's love interest, an actress known as Margo, that harks back to the expressiveness of the silents.
I like this film. It is an interesting retelling of a point of view regarding one of America's most controversial trials - the 1921 - 1927 legal ordeal of Nicolo Sacco and Bartholomeo Vanzetti for the murder of two men in a payroll robbery in Massachusetts. Both were Italian anarchist immigrants in the U.S. Both were convicted by juries which were local Yankee in make-up, not having any non-Yankees on them. Certainly no Italian Americans. The judge, Webster Thayer, was an openly bigoted man. But thousands of people around the country and the world attacked the verdict, and demanded a retrial. Among those who attacked the trial was George Bernard Shaw, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sinclair Lewis, Fiorello La Guardia, and (in a move that opened his later great judicial career) Felix Frankfurter. After going through appeals, and the revelations of a fellow prisoner that the payroll robbery was committed by a local criminal gang, the matter was left to a small commission headed by President Lowell of Harvard College. It turned out to be a whitewash. In the end, the two men were electrocuted. Thayer's and Lowell's reputations never recovered from this.
Scholars on the case are still divided on the guilt or innocence of the two defendants - some have suggested they were both railroaded, or that Sacco was more likely to be guilty, but Vanzetti was probably innocent. Today, nearly eighty years after their deaths they still remain a flash point regarding American bigotry. In 1977, on the 50th Anniversary of their deaths, Governor Michael Dukakis formally pardoned both men.
Maxwell Anderson wrote about the subject twice: the play WINTERSET and the play HIGH TOR. Anderson's reputation as a dramatist has been inflated over the years by critics like Brooks Atkinson. He could occasionally write a well done play, but he was not on the level of his contemporary Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill's tragedies (especially his final ones) was based on personal demons from his family and his life. O'Neill was also willing to experiment on stage with masks (THE GREAT GOD BROWN) or with internal counter-dialogs (STRANGE INTERLUDE) or even with trilogies based on Greek originals (MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA). Anderson only experimented one way - he tried blank verse plays (ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, MARY OF Scotland), and did not do it too well. But here he obviously was passionately determined to defend the memory of the two Italian - American anarchists. His plot is based on developing the thread of the confession (mentioned above) that the murders were planned by a local criminal gang. The gang's leader is Eduardo Cianelli, a brutal criminal who framed the two men by stealing their car as the getaway car.
But the strength of the confession is furthered by claiming the judge was bribed (Thayer was biased but not bribed). Edward Ellis (best recalled as the missing inventor in THE THIN MAN) is the corrupt jurist, who is now a wandering derelict. Vanzetti's famous final letter from the death cell (an elegant final comment that is the basis of contention between Henry Fonda and Eugene Palette in THE MALE ANIMAL) is the basis for the elegant denunciation of the judge in the court by John Carridine (note that his character's first name is also Bartholomeo). Ironically, today, it is believed that elegant final message of Vanzetti may have been written in part by a reporter who supported the defendants.
The son and daughter of the dead men (Burgess Meredith and Margo) are seeking to prove their innocence. But they run against the determination of Cianelli, and his goons. The film is fascinating enough, and concludes satisfactorily (much more than the actual case did). The plot's conclusion also leads to a more prosaic point - if you plan to use a signal to destroy someone, don't forget that signal and use it yourself. See the film to understand that last point.