2 in Venice, and as the press accreditation desk wasn’t opening till the
afternoon, that left the morning free for a visit to the Libreria Solaris, the
only place in Venice for film books and DVDs (and I mean ‘only’ in both senses
of the word). Having grabbed a fistful of movies – including the Italian
releases of both HerculesHercules Unchained, which I
fervently hope are taken from better prints than the budget discs available in
the States – I moseyed on back to the hotel and then over to the Lido,
pondering awhile the relationship between Venice and the movies.
has often been likened to a living film set, a most appropriate comparison
considering the city was literally conjured into reality from nothing. And yet,
paradoxically, it’s the very unreality of the place, the sheer improbability of
it, that leaves the deepest impression on even the most fleeting of visitors.
Venice exists, but a part of your mind is always aware that it shouldn’t.
with actual film sets, some directors make better use of them than others,
while the very best contrive to make the production design an integral part of
the story rather than mere backdrop. In this regard, Venice is no exception.
of the more memorable instances of Venice as backdrop include Sean Connery,
Daniela Bianchi, and Matt Monro combining for the final sequence of From
Russia with Love (1963), as James Bond unspools a reel of compromising film
into the Grand Canal. Bond was back in Venice in 1979 for the puerile Moonraker,
in which Roger Moore struggled to maintain his dignity while driving a
gondala-cum-car through St. Mark’s Square, in addition to having a smashing
time in a fight sequence set in a Murano glass factory. And more recently, an
actor with ginger hair, inexplicably cast as 007, was involved in the
preposterously overblown CGI destruction of an entire Venetian palazzo in the
preposterously over-praised Casino Royale (2006).
wasn’t the only Napoleon to invade Venice. One hundred and seventy years after
the megalomaniac Corsican brought an end to the Venetian Republic, Robert
Vaughn took time off from playing Napoleon Solo to appear in The Venetian
Affair (1967), a tale of murky goings-on derived from a book by Helen MacInnes
and co-starring Euro-spy stalwarts Luciana Paluzzi and Elke Sommer, together
with none other than Karloff the Uncanny in one of his last roles.
by coincidence, of course, Illya Kuryakin was on hand for a fortuitous Man
from U.N.C.L.E. photo-opportunity, when David McCallum “just happened” to
be in the vicinity while filming the obscure romantic comedy, Three Bites of
the Apple, opposite Eurobabe Sylva Koscina.
the subject of romance, there have been endless tear-jerkers and comedies involving
silly foreign girls falling for the cheesy chat-up lines of crooning gondoliers
– though thankfully, few of them come to mind right now. Why exactly gondoliers
have such a reputation as Great Lovers is something of a mystery, though
perhaps some of the attraction for silly foreign girls – working from the
principle of “like attracts like” – is their silly costumes and even
one of the more notable Venetian romances was David Lean’s Summertime
(1955, and released in Britain as Summer Madness), which saw Katharine
Hepburn becoming romantically entangled with Rossano Brazzi. In the course of
filming, Hepburn was required to fall into a canal, a stunt which resulted in
an ear infection which troubled her for the rest of her life.
when it comes to Great Lovers, one Venetian in particular leaves all the
gondoliers, and even Rossano Brazzi, firmly in the shade – Giacomo Casanova, a
man who not only managed to get into an unfeasibly large number of bedrooms,
but also to get out of the prison in the Doge’s Palace by breaking a hole
through the roof; not only a great swordsman then, but also the Cooler King of
his day, no doubt making his getaway in a high-speed gondola. Federico Fellini’s
film about Casanova, modestly entitled Fellini’s Casanova and starring
Donald Sutherland, is probably the most famous movie about the legendary
libertine, though Riccardo Freda’s Il cavaliere misterioso (1948), with
Vittorio Gassman, is highly-regarded, and was followed in 1955 by Le
avventure di Giacomo Casanova, starring Gabriele Ferzetti and directed by
Steno. However, Marcello Mastroianni’s less well-known performance as an aging
and rather sad Casanova in Ettore Scola’s French co-production, La Nuit de
Varennes (1982) may well be the most accurate.
of Donald Sutherland inevitably leads on to what is probably the best film made
(almost) entirely in Venice, Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg
from a story by Daphne du Maurier in 1972, and co-starring Julie Christie. Less
pretentious than some of Roeg’s other work, the film is part psychological
study, part ghost story, and part giallo thriller, as well as being the first
movie to reveal the flipside of tourist Venice – the fact that, for all its
postcard prettiness and gurning gondoliers, Venice is also a deeply, seriously,
sinister place. Streets which seem charming, if confusing, in daylight become
claustrophobic and menacing at night. Sounds distort and echo in the
surprisingly oppressive silence which falls without warning, and it’s easy to
be seized by a rising sense of panic as the street you are sure will lead to
the street that leads to your hotel turns out to lead somewhere else entirely.
And then, just as you’ve convinced yourself that you imagined the red-coated
figure moving in the shadows somewhere behind you – or was it in front? – you
turn into a street and there’s your hotel. There, but not where you expected it
to be . . .
is the Venice that Roeg captures so brilliantly in Don’t Look Now, and
it’s not surprising to learn that the city authorities were less than keen on
the project. Not exactly the image to present to potential tourists – why not
give them gondolas and gelati instead? So much better for business, no?
was an Anglo-Italian co-production with big-name stars who would ensure it was
widely seen. Italian film-makers producing low-budget domestic fare presumably
faced less opposition in utilising the dark side of Venice. One of the earliest
examples was Dino Tavella’s The Monster of Venice (a.k.a. The
Embalmer, 1965), which mixed elements of Italian cinema’s recent Gothic
tradition with those of the emerging giallo trend which was to become so
popular in the early 1970s, following the success of Dario Argento’s The
Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). A number of gialli, set in
Venice or on the other lagoon islands, appeared throughout the decade,
including Silvio Amadio’s Amuck (1971), with Farley Granger, Barbara
Bouchet, and Rosalba Neri; Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die?, with George
Lazenby (1972); Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978); and Mario
Landi’s notorious Giallo a Venezia in 1979. In 1988, Ruggero Deodato
filmed Phantom of Death (a.k.a. Off Balance), with Michael York,
Edwige Fenech, and Donald Pleasence. The latter was one of two films that year
to feature Pleasence in a Venetian setting, the other being Vampire in
Venice (a.k.a. Nosferatu in Venezia), in which Pleasence and
Christopher Plummer joined forces to track down Klaus Kinski’s titular
bloodsucker in what turned out to be a frequently risible and incomprehensible
its rich and fascinating history, there seem to be comparatively few films set
in Venice’s real past. With the obvious exception of those featuring Casanova,
all the above-mentioned were set in the present day. However, there were a few
swashbucklers from the early 1960s set in Venice, though presumably their
devotion to historical verisimilitude was no greater than that of their
Hollywood counterparts. In The Executioner of Venice (1963), Lex Barker
and Guy Madison squared off amid sundry dastardly deeds, while Gordon Scott
provided the derring-do in The Lion of St. Mark from the same year,
opposite Gianna Maria Canale. The following year, Canale, the wife of director
Riccardo Freda, bowed out of films after appearing opposite Brett Halsey in Il
ponte dei sospiri (‘The Bridge of Sighs’).
I proceed along the Lido, the film I’ve successfully put off mentioning till
now rears up unavoidably. As Randolph Scott remarked, “There’s some things a
man can’t ride around,” and as the Hôtel des Bains hoves into view, it’s time
to consider Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, which, as anyone who has
stayed awake till the end can attest, is about a death, in Venice. There isn’t
actually much more to it than that, but it is regarded as one of the
imperishable classics of Italian cinema – although it’s difficult to find
anyone who can say exactly why.
call me a barbarous Philistine if you will, or even a badly house-trained
baboon, but while I can enjoy Fellini with the best of them and can even find
Antonioni grimly fascinating if I’ve smoked enough weed, Visconti in general,
and Death in Venice in particular, have always struck me as more of an
endurance test than anyone shelling out a few bucks for a movie should
reasonably be expected to endure. As Christopher Frayling once put it, “Death
in Venice gives a whole new meaning to motion pictures – it scarcely
moves.” Personally, I think Christopher was being too kind. Death in Venice
is not only an epic snooze-fest without parallel in cinema history, but also
the only film I can think of which effortlessly succeeds in making its
otherwise perfectly acceptable two-hour running time feel like a good eight
hours, at the very least. Gritting my teeth and watching it for the second (and
hopefully, last) time after suffering an acute attack of over-zealousness in
researching this trip, I found myself, after the first hour (which, of course,
expands fourfold when you’re on Visconti time), almost chewing the curtains in
frustration and wildly wishing that somehow the film would morph into Don’t
Look Now, and a red-coated dwarf would materialize in front of Dirk Bogarde
and stab him repeatedly in the neck. Anything to put us both out of our misery.
swiftly on (something Visconti seemed incapable of doing), I took a deep breath
before forcing myself and my exaggerated sense of duty on a quick tour of the
Hôtel des Bains, half-expecting at any moment to find Dirk Bogarde in a bath
chair, cobwebbed and mummified, an endless phantom procession of pretty Polish
boys passing before his sightless eyes. Yes, there was the Thomas Mann Room,
where Dirk mooned over young Tadzio during breakfast, and there was the
Visconti Room where he mooned over Tadzio at dinnertime. At this juncture, it
seems worth mentioning that unfortunate cinemagoers were not the only ones to
find Death in Venice tedious beyond
belief: apparently, Björn Andresen, who played the androgynous Tadzio, found making
the movie so excruciatingly dull that he refused to have anything to do with the
film business ever again. Outside once more, I wondered if anyone had ever actually
died of boredom while watching Visconti’s “masterpiece”, in the same way one
reads apocryphal publicity tales of audience members fainting, puking, or dying
of fright during some half-witted horror film. Certainly seems possible. Must
look it up some time .
La Sala Stucchi in the Hotel Excelsior
this grisly experience, it was but the work of a moment to hotfoot it down to
the Palazzo del Casinò, grab my press pass, and take refuge in the Excelsior
Hotel, a place invoking much more agreeable cinematic memories, those of Sergio
Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It was here that Robert De
Niro’s Noodles had his Great Gatsby moment, hiring an off-season hotel to
impress his unattainable childhood sweetheart, Deborah, played by Elizabeth
McGovern. La Sala Stucchi (‘the Stucco Room’) looks almost exactly as Leone
left it, just with different table arrangements, though the beach front where Noodles
and Deborah share a moonlit moment is currently covered, due to the Festival,
with ghastly promotional halls. Have these people no sense of respect?
With two days to go, would the Palazzo del Cinema be ready in time?
noting with some disgust that the Excelsior’s management had so far failed to
act on my advice, freely offered on my last visit, to install a portrait of
Leone in the bar next to those of the other cinematic luminaries associated
with the hotel (take a bow, Errol Flynn!), I settled down with a coffee on the
terrace to peruse the programme for the Spaghetti Western retrospective. Of
which, more in the next bulletin . . .
Good on ya, sport!
that night, on my way back across St. Mark’s Square, one of the café bands was
playing Ennio Morricone’s main theme from Once Upon a Time in America .
. . Perfetto!