Director: David Lean
Writer: H.E. Bates and David Lean; based on a play by Arthur Laurents
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
Producer: Ilya Lopert
by Jon Cvack
Something’s getting particularly exciting with seeing older films shot overseas in color before color film was ubiquitous; with the blues, reds, and yellows popping in technicolor, all while thinking that this was perhaps the first time most people had seen these exotic locations in motion. It’s an easy point to forget that before the internet, it was either a crappy television that would show you moving images or movies; meaning that when you went to the theater - seeing an image that digital is still trying to replicate - you were witnessing one of the finest ways to experience images. Summertime takes place in Venice, Italy, where a middle aged and single school secretary Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) arrives with a fifth of whisky and camera, immediately meeting a few fascinating characters, including fellow midwesterners and recent retirees Lloyd (MacDonald Parke) and Edith (Jane Rose ) whose hunger for Venice is more for crossing it off a list of places to visit than the culture.
Being use to David Lean’s larger stories - Dr. Zhivago, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia - or even his larger adaptations Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. I believe the previous film I saw of his was Hobson's Choice (1954), which was equally surprising in style, though not necessarily for the better. Summertime plays like a modern indie film, much more in the spirit of Linklater’s Before Trilogy than any type of classical romantic drama from the period.
For the first half or so we’re simply following Jane as she navigates the Venice streets, often told through the point of view of her camera where she films the architecture, art, and people. She eventually meets a young kid and huckster Mauro (Gaetano Autiero) who takes her around the city, coaxing cigarettes from Jane. To see a film that was honest enough to show a kid actually smoke - who might very well exist in such a setting - is another of hundreds of details that all add up to an incredibly authentic piece of filmmaking. It’s evident that David Lean wasn’t throwing darts at a map, but rather providing an intimate and personal story about a particular city.
It’s rare for older films to allow me to so heavily empathize with characters, as I’m often distracted by the performances, iconic performers, or older styles. Not being the biggest fan of Katharine Hepburn, I thought this was her greatest and most vulnerable performance I’ve seen. It’s Hepburn’s large personality that can turn me off at points, as it’s grown redundant to the point of parody. Hepburn disappears into Jane, breaking my heart as we watch a woman that is in no way desperate for love, though dealing with the melancholy of approaching old age (Hepburn was in her late 40s at the time), knowing that she might very well be alone for the rest of her life. As annoying as Lloyd and Edith are, they’re a couple whose relationship has lasted a lifetime, adding up just enough to expound Jane’s struggle with age and loneliness.
While shopping in an antique shop, looking at a red 18th century goblet, she meets Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi); a handsome and slightly older man. In a brilliant scene, Jane inquires about the goblet’s price. Renato says 10,000 lira and Jane agrees, with Renato then explaining how she should never accept the first offer, instead offering 8,700. The two meet each other again and head back to Jane’s place when Lloyd and Edith return, with Edith mentioning how she had just picked up a bunch of goblets from a local glassblower. She opens up the case and we see the same red goblets. Jane asks how much Edith had paid, who amits to 10,000 lira. Jane accuses Renato of lying, who defends himself by explaining that she did in fact have an 18th century goblet, as it’s a very popular style, and even if it was the same, he still gave her the discount. Ultimately we never know whether or not he was telling the truth.
Later, after agreeing to go to dinner with Renato, Jane meets his son who explains - getting lost in translation - that Renato is married. Again Jane confronts him, where Renato admits both to having had an affair with another woman at the hotel, along with being separated, though not yet divorced from his wife. It’s all questionable, as even after the affair with the fellow patron is defended as being none of Jane’s business, having occurred before her arrival, and again we’re not exactly sure what is truth. Jane continues to see him, but with her time - and money - limited, she knows she must return back home. In the film’s best scene, up there with David Lean’s finest, we see her leave, waiting for one last goodbye from Renato, who as the train is leaving, has a present in hand, chasing her down, never to catch up.
Writing so much of this out it all seems so cheesy or uninspired, and yet like the best stories, with Linklater’s Before Trilogy serving as the finest example, it’s often the simplest ideas that can open up the most fascinating stories. We’re not sure of Renato’s veracity, whether Jane actually thought the relationship was doomed, or was too scared to try for reasons we never understand, but can only surmise through the melancholy Jane expresses and carries throughout the film. I struggle to think of a film that could be remade with the same script today - down to the child smoking - and remain just as relevant. Lean had the magnificent ability to create timeless stories. This is by his most underrated film, and one of the most underrated films from the period.
BELOW: Lean making flirtation play like Hitchcock
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