Dir.: Joseph Losey
Scr.: Tennessee Williams; from his play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noel Coward, Joanna Shimkus, Michael Dunn, Romolo Valli
Elizabeth Taylor, Boom!
Elizabeth Taylor plays Flora “Sissy” Goforth, who has isolated herself on her own island on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where she has frequent temper tantrums and bronchial attacks. Sissy is a middle-aged, sexually repressed, much-widowed American who may – or may not – have murdered her husbands.
The opening scene shows Sissy in bed, writhing in agony, surrounded by small dogs. She screams into her intercom, “Pain!! Injection!!” Then we see the gaudy but magnificent diamond ring on her finger. I immediately got the feeling this was real life disguised as reel life, with Ms. Taylor exploiting her various illnesses while displaying her world-famous gems in a funny, outrageous way.
We then see Sissy surrounded by incapable servants who don't speak a word of English, while Sissy herself can't say much more than basta in Italian. In one scene, she is on the phone giving instructions in broken Italian to the cook: “Bif! Beef! Goddamn it! They don't even know their own bloody language!” she screams before slamming down the receiver. In fact, this is where much of the film's humor lies, with Sissy attempting to give the servants instructions in her limited Italian. The results are hilarious.
Sissy is also a hypochondriac with a nasty cough and an even nastier disposition. When the dogs are barking and they disturb her self-involved concentration, she yells: “Shoot them or shut them up!” She spends her days and nights making private announcements on the loudspeaker, snapping menacingly at the terrified hired help, and dictating her memoirs – which sound like the ramblings of a self-absorbed madwoman – to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus).
While Sissy is getting her morning hypodermic, we see Richard Burton coming ashore, ignoring all the warning signs posted along the way. Burton plays a mysterious drifter named Chris Flanders, who, after having intentionally stranded himself on Sissy's private island, gets attacked by her guard dogs. From a distance, Sissy eyes the stranger suspiciously, worried that he will sue her for damages. Only later is it learned that they had met each other before under mysterious circumstances.
Sissy then invites the Witch of Capri (Noel Coward), who possesses some kind of psychic power, to dinner. This is when some fabulous flowing gowns come out. Sissy's first dress is a caftan, designed by Annalisa Nasalli Rocca, that makes her look like a Kabuki dancer.
The Witch arrives carried on the shoulders of a muscular servant. He and Sissy have a private mating call they echo to each other, which is followed by him breathlessly sighing, “Sissy” as only Noel Coward can. Then some deliciously bitchy dialog begins.
After they dine on sea gull eggs, and exchange witty remarks and beauty tips, Sissy asks him what he knows about Chris. The Witch tells her that her visitor is really the Angel of Death, who apparently visits women on the verge of their demise … or he is someone who has a habit of suicide attempts. (I'm not quite clear what the Witch meant, even though I watched this scene three times.)