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Karen Stone (Vivien Leigh) is a star of the stage. She’s taken a new role on Broadway but is receiving criticism from the papers and the public, who think that she’s much too old for the role. Her husband, a man 20 years her senior, somehow finds a way to get her out of the play.

The two head off to Rome together, using his health as an excuse for her to abruptly leave the show. But when his health actually does take a turn for the worse and he suffers a fatal heart attack on the flight, Karen decides not to go back to America. Instead, she stays in Rome, leasing a beautiful apartment with an even more beautiful view.

While in Rome, Karen meets a Contessa (Lotte Lenya) who hooks young Italian men up with rich women and takes a cut of the (usually monetary) gifts that the ladies bestow on them. Through the Contessa, Karen meets and falls for Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty) and the two fall into a quite explosive romance.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is the only film directed by Jose Quintero, a Broadway vet. It is based on a novella by Tennessee Williams, and the character of Karen is said to resemble Williams’ own struggle very greatly.

The film wasn’t held in high respect when it was released. It was met with poor reviews both critically and from audiences, according to the DVD commentary. But either the movie has grown better with age or I simply disagree with those 1961 moviegoers.

I found the performances in this film to be very striking. Lotte Lenya is the perfect villain her role of the Contessa. She’s definitely not a character that wins the audience over or earns any respect from the viewer. One may admire her skills of manipulation, but that can hardly be considered a positive trait. With Lotte Lenya in the role, this touch of evil works very well for the film. She lends a very sinister, almost controlling mood to all of her scenes.

Vivien Leigh is absolutely phenomenal, and having been a fan of her since childhood, I would expect no less. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance from her, even in her films that I don’t particularly enjoy. There have been few actresses like her, so consistently believable and strong. She gives off an air thick with anxiety, fear and loneliness in this film, which may have partially been the product of the personal struggles she was going through in real life around the time that Roman Spring was produced. Regardless of how much her own despair played into her performance, your personal struggles alone can’t make you give a performance as strong as this. She’s got the talent to back it up.

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The one weak performance, and the biggest weak spot for the film as a whole, comes from Warren Beatty.  He’s absolutely lackluster in comparison with the rest of the colorful, strong cast. The spark just wasn’t there for me. It’s possible that I wasn’t reading into his actions deeply enough, but it seemed to me that most of the time he was just looking around with a very lazy expression and/or pouting. He seemed much too apathetic, which I can see may be a part of his character, but to me it just came off like he wasn’t putting much effort or emotion into the film. He was dead in the eyes. Had he stepped it up a notch or had another actor been cast, the scenes between Paolo and Karen would have been filled with the type of high tension that the story permits.

Luckily, Beatty doesn’t bring down the film too much, thanks to solid performances from the rest of the cast and a number of striking elements that make up the film as a whole. It’s written beautifully, telling a very tragic story in a way that could be done by no other than Tennessee Williams. The viewer is very much drawn in by the overall sadness that hangs as a dark cloud over the film. Combine that with stunning cinematography and the film has been saved from Beatty’s faults.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a film high on drama, with a bit of mystery and suspense thrown into the mix. It’s a very unsettling and melancholy film boosted by a generally talented cast and crew, with an ambiguous (and possibly, depending on your interpretation, disturbing) ending thrown in for good measure.
The score: 4/5

*Featured image credit: dvdbeaver.com