My notes on Il Cappotto (The Overcoat) (1952)
In the early 1950s, Wolf Mankowitz adapted Nikolai Gogol’s 1843 story ‘Shinel’ as The Bespoke Overcoat, which was mounted on television in 1954 and again as a short cinema film (directed by Jack Clayton) in 1956, with Alfie Bass and David Kossoff creating and repeating the lead roles. Naturally, the archetypal Russian tale became an archetypal London Jewish tale. In parallel, Alberto Lattuada mounted this feature film version with comedian Renato Rascel, and the archetypal Russian story became an archetypal Italian story – though, for plot reasons, it has to wed the municipal corruption associated with the parched, sunny South to some snowy, frozen, Alpine clime. The opening caption insists it’s a fable rather than a portrait of the times – which, of course, has the effect of making all audiences assume the film’s rotten, uncaring, venal, corrupt, self-serving and smug local politicos are absolutely intended to be representative of the way things were in Italy in 1952.
Broad without being very comical and with a supernatural ending that doesn’t go for a frisson, Il Cappotto was one of a blip of films which struggled to get out of the perhaps dead-ended category of neo-realism through fantasy – though Gogol’s central premise (a little man’s professional life and self-esteem are wrapped up in a prized but necessary item which is stolen from him and wrecks his mind) is surprisingly similar to the neorealist template movie, Bicycle Thieves. In that, all Rome – in a way which seems more neo than realist to me – is obsessed with bicycles, and we’re supposed to believe the city has several huge bicycle fairs on a Sunday morning; here, we return insistently to overcoats, with seemingly every scene featuring tailors, cloth merchants, coat-snatching muggers, deadly clothes-hooks, piles of coats, fur collars, etc. Clerk Carmine De Carmine (Rascel) is caught between glad-handing, absurdly self-important superiors – a Satan-bearded Mayor (Giulio Stival) who wants to spend municipal money on a heritage attraction built around a single chunk of marble, and a tiny, puffed-up toady (Ettore Mattia) whose feet dangle above the floor when he sits at his imposing desk – and petitioners who lurk outside the office to nag him endlessly about issues he is unable to get the Mayor to consider or neighbours who persecute him because he is handily available to take the blame for increased taxes.
Lattuada plays out the section in which the wormy protagonist is downtrodden by individuating the persecutors as horrible, comic caricatures rather than the soulless proto-Kafka bureaucracy of Gogol (it makes less sense for De Carmine’s ghost to haunt the whole town, since presumably the mugger is still out there snug in the stolen coat and could be targeted) and downplays the sacrifices the clerk makes to get his coat in the first place (here, rather than skip eating, he blackmails the toady for a bonus – which makes him much more complicit in the system). The Bespoke Overcoat, which omits the bureaucracy almost entirely and seems to be about cosmic injustice, plays better. Rascel’s pathetic little man act is stretched thin: he’s sweet and funny and faintly creepy – peeping on the Mayor’s mistress Caterina (tall Yvonne Sanson) through her curtains – and has one brief, overcoat-prompted scene of rapture as he dances drunkenly with the towering Caterina at the New Year’s Eve party.
In the story, it’s not a coat but a cloak which gives the clerk confidence; in the 1959 commercial comedy Tempi duri per I Vampiri (Uncle Was a Vampire), Rascel plays another loser who becomes a babe-magnet through the magic of clothing, by donning the cloak of his vampire uncle (Christopher Lee) and repeating the sudden-ability-to-dance business. By the time Il Cappotto is ready to switch to ghost story, it’s been in the business of giving the hero a hard time for so long that the turnaround is almost a throwaway and details like the Mayor’s hair being blanched with fright seem more peculiar than anything else (Clayton’s short is better balanced). In fact, the non-supernatural disruption of the Mayor’s speech by Carmine’s trundling hearse is a more interesting come-uppance than the spectre’s actual appearances ranting ‘where’s my coat’ at all and sundry (just as the zombie grandfather in Creepshow nags ‘where’s my cake?’). As a ghost, Rascel is no more changed, threatening or frightening than he would be as a vampire in the later film – which makes the turning-worm finale less satisfying than the revenges in subsequent wimp-finally-gets-even tales like Willard, Carrie and The Mask (all of which probably owe Gogol a debt). Italian fantasy cinema wasn’t finished with Gogol – his folk tale ‘The Viy’ would be the source for Mario Bava’s breakthrough film La Maschera del Demonio.
Gotta love those freaky Russians. Two of the segments from I Tre volti della paura (which still freaks me out if I watch it on my own late at night) were based on stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov. And I’ve been meaning to watch The Queen of Spades for EVER. Must go watch it. Right now.
The Clayton film is a nice extra on the BFI dvd of The Innocents…
Russian animator Yuri Norstein has been working on a version of this story for the last two decades.