The transformation of an ordinary man to something resembling a hero is the stuff of many war films, but they're usually about a soldier who finds the courage to throw himself into the thick of battle. Here, the transformation is wrought on a con man, played by Vittorio De Sica, who manages to look elegant even as he's playing a man of reduced means. Presenting himself as "Colonel Grimaldi," he preys upon the fears of those whose relatives have been incarcerated by the Germans in occupied Genoa, offering promises of access and a better deal in exchange for the money he needs to pay his gambling debts. The fact that Bardone (the character's real name) is taking advantage of his fellow Italians is a terrific setup for his own incarceration as General della Rovere. The Germans hope to use his charismatic presence in a jail packed with political prisoners to elicit information on which of them is the leader of the resistance, opening him up to intense torture for information on his organization's activities. Not surprisingly, Bardone undergoes a conversion once he's behind bars. Setting up this scenario takes a bit too much screen time, though it's a lot of fun to watch De Sica's routine. The payoff scenes -- his reading the last graffiti of condemned men written on a cell wall, using his con man's skills to bluff his fellow prisoners into being brave during an air raid -- are well worth the slow build-up. Also of note is Hannes Messemer's performance as Bardone's Colonel Mueller, a cultured Nazi officer who only reluctantly uses physical intimidation to get his way and then shrugs philosophically when a mass execution thwarts his quest for the leader's identity.
by Tom Wiener review