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In David Lean’s Summertime, in which Rossano Brazzi seduces Katharine Hepburn—an aging, repressed Ohio “working girl” on vacation in Venice—the Continental lover reached his pinnacle and approached his end. In the next decade, he would be embodied by Marcello Mastroianni, who was too cynical and self-disgusted to take the role seriously. By then, even Mastroianni himself knew the game was up. And by the ’70s, no filmmaker could get away with the premise that Americans needed Europeans for sensual instruction. In 1955, however, the conventions of the formula were still very much in place, and Summertime, directed with superb confidence by David Lean, proved to be a popular addition to the long-running idiom (perhaps best exemplified by 1942’s Now, Voyager).
Hepburn, as Jane Hudson, a “fancy secretary” from Akron, arrives in Venice on her first trip to Europe (“Like it? I’ve got to. I’ve saved up for such a long time”), and Lean devotes loving attention to her initial encounters: her struggles with a porter, her bafflement when her “bus” turns out to be a slow-moving boat, and her stumbling over restaurant Italian (“Grazie!” “Prego!” “Va Bene!” “Arrivaderci!”). Lean compares her throughout to a friendly, noisily philistine American couple who understand nothing of what they see (“Hundreds of paintings—all of them done by hand”). But Jane wants desperately to get it right, to respond and appreciate, to become, at least, an acceptable American traveller. For her, Venice is a series of revealed enchantments—churches and palazzi bearing into view at the turn of a corner, beautifully photographed in Jack Hildyard’s palette of blue and gold, with potted flowers, burnished copper, and other bits of color shining in the corners. The beauty is overwhelming, and no one was ever so responsive to “views” as Katharine Hepburn. Trembling, taking it all in, she’s seduced, ravished even, before she arrives at her pensione.
At the same time, the Italianness of Venice assaults and offends her, disrupting her art paradise. Garbage is thrown into the canals from upstairs windows, and sex is breaking out everywhere.
In these early scenes, Lean captures an emotion that almost every American traveling in Europe has felt at one time or another: the intolerable oppressiveness of beauty when it’s experienced in solitude. Vincent Korda did the sumptuous interior designs, but Summertime is an outdoor movie. The sunshine is inescapable; even when the shades are drawn, it spills around the edges. The peculiar mournful melancholy that Jane feels is brought to the point of anguish as she sits alone on the back terrace of the Pensione Fiorini after everyone has left for their dinner engagements. She turns this way and that, responding to the cries and bits of music she hears along the canal, then pulls back in disgust.
Jane drinks quite a bit, and she holds on to other couples, bravely offering to be the third or fifth wheel for an evening, then withdrawing at the first sign of resistance. She has the longtime defenses, the starts and hesitations and refusals of a person with too much pride to give up the loneliness she hates. Hepburn had done this sort of thing before—most notably in 1951’s The African Queen—and she would do it again in The Rainmaker (1956), but the skittishness, the little verbal tics, don’t seem studied. She finds a new rhythm for this particular woman who loves pleasure but fears it, who believes in straightforwardness yet adopts furtiveness as a way of life.
The love affair itself may be formulaic, but Hepburn falling in love is a miracle. Her opening up to passion—she did it again and again in films—is the main reason she remained a star despite all her upper-class mannerisms and by-golly declarativeness. Suddenly, the heat comes up right through her cheekbones; her red hair seems to burn. “You make many jokes, but inside you cry,” Brazzi says to her.
Lean’s technique has never been smoother and more tactful, never more supportive of a star giving a bravura performance in a difficult role. He takes his time, lets the movie breathe; Summertime’s principal drama is Jane’s changing state of mind. In a memorable sequence, she wanders around the city and is seemingly drawn into the Piazza San Marco by the ringing of the bells. Hearing the sound, she rushes through crowds; the camera, suddenly waking up after much drowsy, heat-dimmed contemplation, recedes before her, then follows her through a dark arcade and out into the light amid the now-clangorous ringing. This is tremendously romantic rhetoric of a high order. Lean, I think, genuinely identifies with Jane’s love of beauty and her fear of it, her longing for sensuality and her terror of being engulfed by it. Her fervency and stiffened resistance seem emblematic of the great and single-minded director’s whole career.
David Denby is film critic for New York magazine.