Noel Megahey reviews this often overlooked gem from David Lean, starring Katherine Hepburn as an American spinster on holiday looking for love and romance in Venice.
Often overlooked when considering the career of David Lean, Summertime is nonetheless a pivotal film in the director’s career and, at least as far as I am concerned, one of his best films. Relatively small-scale, its simple romantic storyline looks back towards Brief Encounter, yet its striking use of location – Venice – hints at the epic qualities that would follow in Lean’s subsequent films, Bridge over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Lying between them and rather more perfectly pitched in terms of treatment, performance and content, is Summertime.
It’s largely down to Katherine Hepburn’s wonderful performance that the otherwise rather routine romantic storyline works so well. She plays Jane Hudson, an America spinster of modest means who has finally saved enough money to realise the dream she has always had of travelling to Venice. In the back of her mind, she has also evidently dreamt of being swept off her feet by a handsome Italian gentleman, but is nonetheless unsure how to react when a charming antique shop owner Renato De Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) starts to show interest in her. Hepburn plays this confusion and conflict in her character to perfection. It’s not a subtle performance, but it’s expressive and sympathetic, conveying the complex emotions and feelings of a largely repressed Anglo-Saxon woman struggling with her own desires when confronted with the passions of the Latin temperament.
More than either Hepburn or Brazzi – neither of whom can be faulted for their wonderful performances or presence – much of what passes between them is conveyed more through symbolic gestures and objects. Likewise few of them are subtle – the red shoes that Miss Hudson buys symbolising passion, liberation and freedom of expression; the gardenia which remains tantalisingly just out of reach representing her link to a past that she wants to either bury or see bloom,. As for the fireworks …well, I’m not sure how fresh it was at the time – Hitchcock used it in a similar context in To Catch A Thief which was made the same year, 1955 – but it’s as a well-worn a cliché as crashing waves on a beach, so I don’t have to explain that one. Rather more inventive is the use of the antique red goblet that Miss Hudson buys from De Rossi. As a symbol of what is between them and the conflict of those unspoken emotions and fears, it works subliminally as a perfect expression of Miss Hudson’s doubts about the love the antique owner offers is genuine rather than the common fake charms spun out to fool the tourists.
Nothing expresses better that which is left unspoken however than Venice itself. Location is always important in Lean films, but nowhere is it used so evocatively and powerfully without subsuming the individual or their predicament. Here Venice is a perfect representation of Miss Jane Hudson – slightly faded and past its prime, living on dreams of the past, but still glamorous and romantic. Moreover, it’s a city of two distinct characters – busy, proper and efficient by daytime, but by night giving way to darker impulses, shadows and uncontrollable passions. It’s a balance that Miss Hudson struggles to reconcile within herself, but not so David Lean, delivering an assured, pitch-perfect treatment that delightfully plays romance off against humour, cuteness against cynicism – both through some fine secondary characters performances from Mauro the street-kid (Gaetano Autiero) and the more typical American tourists the McIlhenny’s (Jane Rose and MacDonald Parke) – exploiting the picture-postcard scenery of Venice without ever using it as a mere backdrop.
DVDSummertime is released in the UK by Second Sight. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
VideoTaken from a good print of the film, the transfer is reasonably good, but shows some minor signs of age and wear. The image is a little soft in a couple of scenes, some grain is evident and colours are perhaps not quite as vivid as they could be – the Technicolor tones fluctuating slightly. There are a few minor scratches and some speckling of dustspots, but most of the film looks marvellous with adequate but not spectacular detail. The opening titles – which have the US film title Summertime rather than the UK title of Summer Madness – show some shocking dot-crawl artefacts, but this doesn’t appear to be a problem during the film itself. Noise-reduction however causes one noticeable moment of wavering during the birds-eye view of the band playing at night in St. Mark’s Square. I haven’t seen the Criterion edition to compare, but this edition shows a Janus Films title screen, so I suspect it’s from the same source.
AudioThe audio track is fine with few problems. Evidently the mono soundtrack isn’t going to be too impressive, but there is good clarity and tone here with only one or two passages sounding slightly dull. The majority of the film however is quite clear, with no analogue hiss or background noise to distract.
SubtitlesNo subtitles are provided.
ExtrasThere are no extra features on the disc.
OverallMy head tells me that Summertime is a film you ought to rate about an 8 or a 9, but my heart says it’s a 10 and I’ve seen it enough times to know it’s not just a passing fancy. Any reservations one might have about Lean’s over-romanticism of Miss Jane Hudson or his picture postcard representations of Venice itself can easily be forgiven when a film is as effortlessly delightful and beautiful as this. To appreciate the underlying truth of the film, you need only to visit Venice yourself and see a city which remains essentially unchanged from how it appears in this film (although sadly, the last time I visited it, Signore De Rossi’s antique shop at the Campo San Barnaba was all boarded up). Although the print used for this UK DVD edition could certainly do with a bit of restoration, it still looks marvellous, and perhaps the fading glamour of the print suits the content in this case.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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