Has anyone told you lately that you lead a cherished life? Maybe, yes – but not to the townsfolk of Guellen, a small, economically depressed town on the continent of Europe. With their Mine, Foundry, and factories shut down, they are out of work and poor, but very headstrong of their blood-bond of being a Guellenite.
As the film “The Visit” opens, the mayor, the pastor, the professor, the proprietor of the general store Serge Miller and his wife Mathilda “Kovach” Miller, the Police Chief Dobrik and his secret lover Anya, the young pretty maid, to say the least, the entire townsfolk are excitedly preparing for the arrival of a long lost daughter of their town. She has made it big and she will be generous to them with financial aid.
Karla Wechsler is coming to her hometown for a visit – after nearly twenty long years. She’s now Karla Zachanassian, ‘the richest woman in the world.” But unknown to the townsfolk, she has a secret agenda. Serge Miller, slated to be the next mayor, is the main consultant of the town for the welcome arrangements as he was once her “wild panther”, Karla’s lover when she was a teenager. Before they could be ready to welcome her, Karla arrives with her entourage consisting of her councilor, bodyguards, enormous amount of luggage, a Rolls Royce and a pet leopard, one of her ideas of excitement.
During a banquet that night, Karla (hair so superbly arranged, dazzled with Bulgari jewels) offers the indigent people of Guellen two million – one million for the township and one million to be divided equally among the citizens of Guellen. But there is one condition: after twenty years, three months and two days – she wants justice. She wants her former lover Sergie Miller to be tried in court and legitimately put to death. When she was 17 and in love with him, he had seduced her which resulted in her pregnancy. He had not only refused to marry her but also denied the paternity of her child. In order to cast her out of the town, he had ruthlessly deceived her by bribing two men with bottles of brandy to deceptively testify that they had slept with her many times, and branded her as promiscuous. With her fairy tale gone haywire, she had fled in disgrace from the town. To substantiate her claim, Karla presents the two testifiers, Joseph Cadek and Ludwicg Darvis, and her legal councilor Bardrick, who was the presiding judge of the Paternity Court of Guellen before which Karla was tried. All three of them are in her private employment now.
Judith, her child had lived less than a year and Karla was forced into professional prostitution. She had met a wealthy man in a whorehouse at Trieste, married him and became a “Zachanassian” who owned “5% of the whole world” She was a woman wronged. How could the townsfolk tolerate for so long that the perpetrator of such heinous crime goes unpunished? Her plea for justice is outrightly rejected by all those present. Soon, the affirmation of the support of the townsfolk to their old friend Miller created a situation wherein people started buying things on credit from Miller’s store, pushing him into financial decay.
Karla was prepared to wait. Yes, her wealth can extract their sympathy and support. For the price she had offered they would betray their own siblings. Soon truck loads of clothing, home appliances, cars and whatnot articles started to arrive in the town. These articles can be bought by any citizen of Guellen on a credit plan – available just for their signature – without money. The change in the attitude of the townsfolk was astounding – even Miller’s wife was running after the luxury items. As people gradually became indebted to Karla, she watched from the sidelines and saw them grow happier and affluent. All Miller could do was protest as he lost his family and friends to the bribery of Karla, obsessed by a great vendetta.
When Karla’s pet leopard escapes, it was Miller the townsfolk were actually hunting for. Miller’s terrified pleas to Karla to call everything off fell on deaf ears. Even his attempt to leave the town secretly was craftily stopped by the townsfolk as they considered him their ticket to prosperity. Seeking Karla’s patronage that had become the civic necessity, the Councilors amended their statutory rules and reinstated the capital punishment which immensely delighted Karla. They requested Karla to stop her persecution of Miller and invest in the dying Guellen. Karla just laughed it off and informed them that she already owns all the property in Guellen. She revealed to them that it was she who was responsible for pushing the town into this desolate state. She would not settle for anything less than the death of Miller. Resigned to fate, Miller agrees to stand for trial in justice towards Karla, but he flatly refuses the Council’s suggestion to “show some community spirit” and commit suicide and save the town from the trial. Blinded by the glitter of money and of prosperity to come, the citizens of Guellen had no qualms to unanimously convict their friend Miller and sentence him to death. Karla had conquered them all!
Focusing on the idea that man and justice can be bought, the remaining part of “the visit” comprise the outcome of “Karla’s final revenge against the townsfolk” and “Anya’s salvation from her illicit affair with the captain of police,” which I better leave to the viewer who will have the opportunity to see this lovely movie.
Despite too-vociferous at times, the radiant and stately Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman in the role of Karla (attired in elegant costumes by René Hubert and executed by Nina Ricci, hairstyle by Giorgio of Rome and special make-up by John O’Gorman) is superbly malicious as the lady toying with the life and death of her lover. In 1959, Bergman was reportedly offered a four picture deal by 20th Century Fox and the choice of 14 greatest directors who ruled Hollywood at that time. She turned that offer down, and opted for the choice for selection of good scripts for her. Later, she came across “The Visit” amongst a pile of scripts at her then husband Lars Schmidt’s office and the work on the script quickened once Darryl F. Zanuck returned to the helm of Fox in 1962.
The role of Miller is fortified with the exemplary vitality and glowing warmth of the ever versatile Anthony Quinn. Quinn and Bergman became good friends during making of this movie and would once again reunite in “A Walk in the Spring Rain” (1970), a Stirling ‘Dale’ Silliphant romantic drama about extramarital affair. Their co-stars Irina Demick (of “The Longest Day”, “The Sicilian Clan”) and Valentina Cortese (of “Barabbas”, “Jesus of Nazareth”) are fine as Anya and Mathilda respectively. The film was shot in CinemaScope by Armando Nannuzzi at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios and on location at Ponte Galeria, Caprancia, some 55 kms northwest of Rome.
The Visit produced by Julien Derode, Darryl F. Zanuck and Anthony Quinn, is directed by Bernhard Wicki, who was nominated at 1964 Cannes Film Festival for the “Golden Palm”. The film also received a nomination for Best Costume Design (René Hubert) at the 1964 Academy Awards. While the music by Hans-Martin Majewski and Richard Arnell is gratifying, the Screenplay by Ben Barzman (“El Cid” (1961), “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964)), was criticized for being a bit glum, uneven and heavy for the average viewer and not cut for the talents of Bergman or Quinn.
The Visit is based on the play “Der Besuch der Alten Dame” by Swiss writer Friedrich Düerrenmatt. It was adapted for the stage in English by Maurice Valency and staged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York in 1958 starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the lead roles of “CLAIRE Zachanassin” and “ANTON SCHILL”. The Lunts had toured with it in England in 1957 under the title “Time and Time Again” and had it re-titled “The Visit” when they brought the play to New York. Even though the original ending was altered for the movie, it nevertheless packs the punch of the original play. The film was remade as “Hyènes” in 1992. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)