Written by Terence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith, this 1964 British-made MGM film revolves around a central character - the car of the title - and its three very different successive owners. During the two-hour eyeball-fest the viewer is propelled from stiff-upper lip, high-society England to a leisurely stroll around gangster-ruled scenic Italy, and finally a hazardous journey through war-torn Yugoslavia.
The English Story
The first owner is racehorse enthusiast the Marquess of Frinton (Rex Harrison) who buys the car from salesman Lance Percival as an anniversary gift for his (unbeknown to him, cheating) wife, the Marchioness (Jeanne Moreau). It's the day of the King George V Gold Cup and the Marquess, who has never won the Cup before, has a horse running. They take the yellow Rolls-Royce to the racecourse and while the race is on and her husband is distracted, the Marchioness sneaks off to meet her lover 'one last time' - in the car.
The assignation has not gone unnoticed by jealous family friend Lady St Simeon (Moira Lister) - who considers it her duty to inform the Marquess of what is going on behind the window blinds of the Rolls-Royce. Lord Frinton insists she is misinformed and dismisses her, but the seed of doubt has been sown and a nagging worry about his wife's whereabouts forces him to abandon the race.
His walk between the other cars - his face etched in pain and eyes fixed on the distinctive Rolls-Royce in the distance, while in the background we can hear the race commentary over the tannoy and the thundering of the horses' hooves - brings the story to a powerful climax. The Marquess yanks open the car door and discovers the couple in a compromising position, just as his horse crosses the finishing line and wins the race.
On the way to the winner's enclosure to collect his trophy, the Marquess is congratulated by the other racegoers, but he takes no pleasure from the triumph. His wife totters behind, trying to catch him up. With a face set in stone he grimaces the semblance of a smile as he raises the Cup aloft to the cheers of the crowd. At the celebratory party back at their home, the Marchioness offers her husband a divorce, but he tells her not to be ridiculous, as they have to 'make the best of things'. Before he returns to his guests, the Marquess tells his butler to 'get rid of the car' - eliciting a shocked look from the astonished man, who nonetheless drives it back to the car showroom.
The Italian Story
The next owner of the car is cigar-smoking gangster Paolo Maltese (George C Scott) who decides to take his 'moll', the gum-chewing, bored-out-of-her-skull Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine), to Italy to meet his family before he marries her. Just after they arrive at their hotel, a young, good-looking Italian photographer called Stefano (Alain Delon1) pesters them to take their picture. He pays Mae a lot of attention which she tries to ignore, but she's intrigued.
Paolo gets a call from the United States saying he's needed by Capone2: Don't worry about me, the shooting's going to be strictly one way. Mae wants to return with him, saying Italy is boring, but Paolo wants to take care of business and leaves her in the care of Joey Freidlander (Art Carney), instructing him to 'show her the sights'.
After Paolo departs, Mae is even more bored, so Joey offers to take her for a drive in the Rolls-Royce. They end up in a charming little town and stop for refreshments. Across the square, Mae spots Stefano taking the photograph of an American female tourist, flattering her as he gives her his address on a piece of paper. Stefano then looks round for his next customer, and spies Mae and Joey at their table. He hurries across and takes her photo before she can object. He tells her how beautiful she is, and she tells him he is amoral. When he doesn't understand, she explains what it means and he agrees with the assessment and laughingly replies: Every day I will impress someone with this word.
The next day Joey and Mae set off to go swimming and Stefano asks for a lift. He offers to show them the 'Sapphire Grotto' which is inside a cave. Mae is delighted and convinces Joey that she wants to go. When they arrive Stefano tells them the story of the ghosts who haunt the cave, but they won't harm them, because 'they only harm those who commit murder'. This story spooks Joey, and he insists he's not going in the cave. Mae and Stefano dive in and swim to the grotto, where they get to know each other a little better. Mae asks question after question about his lifestyle, then concludes that their lives aren't that different. Just as they're about to leave, Mae tells Stefano that she wouldn't want to be the poor girl Stefano eventually marries, because she'd be so jealous. He tells her that she won't have cause to be jealous, and he kisses her. At first she responds, then pushes him away and runs off, shouting that she loves Paolo; this echoes loudly around the grotto. They swim back to shore and she gets into the back of the Rolls-Royce to dry off and change. Joey is nowhere to be seen, and Stefano opens the car door, removing his shoes before stepping into Mae's waiting arms.
When Joey returns and spots the car window blinds drawn and Stefano's footwear outside the door, he twigs what's going on but doesn't do anything to stop it. Mae and Stefano embark on a passionate affair and they dance to the award-winning 'Forget Domani3' sung by Katyna Ranieri. Days later Joey shows Mae a newspaper which has a front-page photo of a slain gangster, and informs her that Paolo will be on his way back to Italy. Mae is about to confess all about her affair, but Joey tells her:
I don't wanna know. 'Cos if I know, and Paolo knows I know, I'd be deader than the deadest duck on the Earth. And that dead I don't like being.
She asks if Paolo would miss her if she ran off, because she doesn't think there'd be that much to miss, and Joey replies that not only would Paolo track them down, but her boy would be glad to be dead.
That night, Mae gets dressed up in fur and diamonds and goes to meet Stefano. When they meet, Stefano gives her the photo he took of her in the square. She thanks him, takes a wad of cash from her purse, and thrusts it into his palm. He asks what it's for, and she says 'the picture, it's cute', then turns to walk off. He catches her up and grabs her shoulders, asking what's wrong. She glares at him coldly and shakes herself free, saying 'Do you mind?' She points to her jewels, explaining that they're real diamonds, something he could never give her. Shocked, Stefano takes a step backward and gives her back the cash, saying the photo is not for sale. Mae says 'That's tough', hands him back the photo, turning and walking away with tears pouring down her face. She doesn't see Paolo, who has easily tracked them down and witnesses the dumping, standing in the shadows.
Their reunion upsets Mae even more and she insists she wants to return to the States and get married straight away. Paolo asks if she's sure, biting his cigar as he glances back at the heartbroken young man in the square. As Mae says yes, rockets and fireworks light up the dark sky and Mae remarks how cute the town looks in that light. Stunned Paolo, realising how much she has changed for the better, pats Joey on the back and states that for once she has noticed something, to which Joey replies: She's been noticing a lot lately. As they drive off in the yellow Rolls-Royce, Stefano watches and rips the photo of Mae into pieces.
The Yugoslavian Story
The last segment, switching from the fabulous Italian scenery to war-torn Yugoslavia, is a stark contrast. It's 1939 and Gerda Millett (Ingrid Bergman) is an American ambassador who has been sent on a diplomatic mission to Albania. Gerda takes along her companion, Hortense Astor (Joyce Grenfell), and her constantly-yapping pet Pekinese. At the meeting with the Albanian ambassador (Gregoire Aslan) who insists that war is about to be declared, Gerda argues back that 'Mr Hitler' assured the American president that he had no such plans. Returning to her hotel room, Gerda is waylaid by resistance fighter Davich (Omar Sharif) who tells her that it is imperative that he return to Yugoslavia, and he begs for her help.
Against her better judgement, Gerda arranges to buy the yellow Rolls-Royce and hides Davich in the boot while she drives to the border. The tension rises as the soldiers at the checkpoint insist on checking the car and the dog barks at the boot. Gerda insists the dog is after its food and informs the soldiers that the president will be furious is their meeting is held up, so the guards let her go. As soon as they're out of sight, Gerda lets Davich out and he rides in the front with her. When they arrive at his home town they find it under bombardment and there are wounded people who need transport to a local hospital. Gerda insists on staying to help, even though her own life is in danger, and after an exhausting day driving back and forth through hazardous terrain, she finally takes a breather. Davich tells her how wonderful he thinks she is, and thanks her profusely for her help. She insists she has done nothing out of the ordinary, but her guard is down and amid the shellfire they climb into the back of the yellow Rolls-Royce to spend the night together.
The following day Gerda says goodbye and drives back to Albania, where she is greeted by her worried friend Hortense who rabbits on about what an awful experience it must have been. Gerda gazes at the car longingly and agrees, yes, it was just awful.
'Forget Domani' won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture (music by Riz Ortolani and lyrics by Norman Newell).
Domani, forget domani
Let's live for now, and anyhow, who needs domani?
The moonlight, let's share the moonlight
Perhaps together we will never be again.