Film Reviews

Summertime David Lean

Rating - 8/10

In David Lean’s filmography 1955’s Summertime is a transistional work: bridging the modest, literary dramas of his early career with the Cinemascope visuals and exotic locales of his latter years. Based on Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo, Summertime belongs to a sub-genre of post-war dramas released in the 1940’s and 1950’s featuring American characters finding love, adventure and danger in European cities such as Vienna (The Third Man), Rome (Roman Holiday, Three Coins in the Fountain) and Berlin (A Foreign Affair). 

The sub-genre's emphasis on European cultural refinement and Old World romantic charm through the subjective gaze of an American visitor is perhaps most distinctive in Lean’s tale of an uncherished middle-aged tourist, who earnestly believes in Europe’s romantic lure. Like Jose Quintero's bleak Tennessee Williams' adaptation The Virgin Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), Summertime features a lonely, aging woman hoping to find companionship in a rustic Italian city. Unlike Quintero's Vivien Leigh vehicle, Summertime emphasizes the sadness and anguish brought on by solitude. Resultingly, Summertime was released in Great Britain under the more hyperbolic title Summer Madness, a moniker eluding to the frenzied impulsive emotional state Hepburn’s character resides in for the majority of her trip.  

Arriving from Rome aboard a blackened steam engine, lonely spinster Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) uses her ever-present 8mm film camera to capture a colorful brochure declaring Venice as the “City of Romance.” Jane’s fixation with her camera clearly defines her as an observer. Unlike, the other tourists she meets along the way, Jane is not an active participant in life. She has no pre-arranged timetables or checklists of sites to see. Instead, Jane takes everything in with a mixture of whole-hearted naivety and purposeful intentions.

A “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio, Jane immediately attempts to distinguish herself from other tourists. In order to travel throughout the city, Jane boards a local water bus, rather than a gondola. Her lodgings are located in a quiet, run-down pensione, rather than a bustling hotel to avoid “tourists like myself.” This attempt at disconnection is purely a ruse designed to bring Jane closer to her fated aspirations. Enchanted by the splendor of her surroundings, Jane admits that she is perhaps unconsciously visiting Venice for more than simply taking in the art, the architecture and the canals. She confides to the pensione's landlord that she is conceivably looking for "a miracle."

The miracle in question is her yearning to find true love. Aside from a distant college boyfriend, romance seems to have bypassed Jane throughout her lifetime. Yet, in the Old World settings of Venice, there appears to be the fleeting embodiment of an elusive fairytale romance. At least in Jane's mind that is. Duality has become for Jane an infatuation with deep psychological underpinnings. It seems no matter where Jane goes in Venice, she is reminded of her loneliness. Lean's consistent application of a doubling motif follows his protagonist throughout the film, as she drinks alone while watching amorous couples, laughs at two wind-up toy dogs and searches for matching antique goblets.

The quest for the latter 18th century Venetian-made relics leads Jane to a tatty and chaotic antique shop, where she meets her European beau in the form of Renato (Rossano Brazzi). Charming and sleek, the silver-haired Renato becomes in Jane's eyes, like the city of Venice, an idealized conceptualization. With her camera in tow, Renato is filtered as a flawless knight in armor. As the relationship heats up and Jane dispenses with her camera, the picturesque vision transforms into something more picaresque once Renato's past is divulged. Soon like the white gardenia floating down the canals of Venice, Renato becomes an untouchable entity and his life begins to resemble his disorderly workplace.

Aching and desperate, Jane through Hepburn's performance is transformed into a delicate, fragile and incredibly vulnerable creature. The performance ranks as one of Hepburn's best and most emotionally complex dramatic efforts. Perfectly cast in the role, Hepburn's melancholy portrayal may have been influenced by romantic fissures within her own private life during this period. The awkwardness, sadness and nervousness contained in her character are enunciated by Hepburn's fidgety prim persona and oversized sunglasses that act as a shield to camouflage her deficiencies around potential suitors. Hepburn's scenes in isolation are performed with a poignant subtlety which emphasizes the deafening silence and vast spaces surrounding her. 

Featuring long, lush takes, Lean's third color film is one of his most beautiful visual creations. A deft disguise draped over the film's thin narrative, Jack Hildyard's cinematography is stunning and sumptuous. Acting as Jane's scope of vision, Hildyard's images supply the vivid warmth and romantic transfiguration the city represents for Lean's central character. Hildyard's tourist board picture-postcard sights also inspired audiences, who flocked to Venice in droves upon the film's initial release.

Summertime proved to be a critical and commercial triumph for Lean, despite being banned in some countries for its then decidedly adult content. The film's success enabled Lean to leave British cinema to garner more lucrative projects in Hollywood. The sophisticated visual and contextual foundations for those later epics are evident throughout Summertime in its blend of expansive scenery mixed with subtle and often wordless interactions. Lean would cultivate other exotic stories featuring additional isolated outsiders in his later work, but with Summertime the acclaimed British filmmaker crafted a touching evocation of loneliness and an emotional realism rarely evident in similar melodramas of the period.