No city on earth is quite as improbable as Venice. A conglomeration of island developments built on wetland, Venice grew out of a lagoon in the collapsing days of the Roman empire and found itself, for a time, at the centre of the Western world, a fulcrum of global trade linking Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Its architecture shaped by the diverse cultural influences that cross-pollinated in the heyday of the Venetian Republic, the tourist attraction Venice of today has the appearance of a city petrified in time – though the ‘Floating City’ is, actually, at risk of disappearing altogether, met by rising tides as each year it sinks deeper into the mud. Cinema, naturally, hasn’t been able to resist such a dramatic location.
On film, Venice has proven a versatile place. An enduringly popular image, of gondoliers escorting couples along historic waterways lined with palazzos – an image seen in cinema as far back as 1896, in the Lumière brothers’ Panorama du Grand Canal vu d’un bateau – has lent Venice the reputation of a romantic city, a notion drawn upon in innumerable films. More tragic romances, like Senso (1954) and The Souvenir (2019), have played upon the idea of Venice as a city of love in their own way.
Venice, though, is also a city of mirrors and masks – an ideal setting for films of a psychological bent like The Lost Moment (1947) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). It’s a labyrinthine, Gothic city, which lends itself comfortably to mystery and horror, two genres that this year’s new Poirot instalment, A Haunting in Venice, straddles. And it’s a city of operatic grandeur, all the better for staging epic action in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023).
Through the decades, cinema has found in Venice a platform suited to all manner of stories. Here are 10 of the best.
Top Hat (1935)
Director: Mark Sandrich
While in London for his first UK show, American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) meets and falls head over heels for fashion model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). Dale, however, confuses Jerry for his married producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), whose wife Madge (Helen Broderick) just happens to be holidaying in the same location as Dale’s next stop: Venice. With the players and a classic screwball misunderstanding in place, the stage is set for a romantic Venetian farce.
Bringing canals, cafés and hotels under one Hollywood studio roof, Top Hat’s Venice set is a city in miniature, interpreted via the style of the period as a kind of Art Deco fairground fantasia. Climactic ensemble number ‘The Piccolino’ is danced across a small-scaled Venetian piazza, while for ‘Cheek to Cheek’ Fred and Ginger glide across a ‘roof terrace’ before a painted backdrop of St Mark’s Basilica to the sound of Irving Berlin’s immortal swooner of a tune.
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1951)
Director: Orson Welles
In Filming Othello, his 1978 essay film on the tortuous gestation of his second on-screen Shakespeare adaptation, Orson Welles explains how his Iago, Micheál Mac Liammóir, can in one scene be seen crossing “two continents in the middle of a single spoken phrase”. Welles’s anxious, doomy Othello was shot piecemeal throughout Italy and Morocco, in a largely self-funded production that lasted three years. Far from being hobbled by its budgetary and logistical limitations, though, the film actually draws its power from them.
A ruthless adapter of Shakespeare, Welles cuts the source text to the bone, while the methods he uses to disguise a drawn-out, threadbare production – cinematography dominated by close-ups, canted angles and shadow; a syncopated edit stitching together shots snatched in myriad locations – give the film a nervy, paranoid energy. As in the play, a besieged Cyprus (a holding of the Venetian empire up until the late 16th century) is the primary setting, but the film’s first act presents a memorable Renaissance-era Venice, a vision of pre-tourist magnificence that appears suitably lived-in.
Director: David Lean
Before he entered the final, epic stage of his career with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), David Lean made one last intimate romance. Summertime stars a brittle Katharine Hepburn as lonely American tourist Jane Hudson, who enters the picture pulling into Venice by train and soon embarks on what would appear an ideal Venetian fling. That Jane’s lover, antique dealer Renato (Rossano Brazzi), turns out to be married (albeit separated) doesn’t deliver the dramatic punch it perhaps once did, but Summertime isn’t about wrenching drama so much as a quieter, more modest affair conducted with the experience and maturity of middle-age.
The film is less subdued in its love for Venice. Lean, who elected to buy a home there after shooting on Summertime ended, clearly adored the place; it’s evident in his sunlit Technicolor views of Venice’s tourist-friendly vistas, which recall the clarity and busy, widescreen detail of Canaletto – and anticipate the large-scale filmmaker that Lean would soon become.
Director: Joseph Losey
Blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey made movies all over Europe after departing Hollywood, but he enjoyed a particular love affair with Venice. La Serenissima provided a setting for three of Losey’s works-in-exile, including his adaptation of the Brecht-penned biographical play Galileo (1975), the sumptuous opera film Don Giovanni (1979) and, most strikingly, 1962’s anti-romance Eva.
After his hit debut novel is adapted into a film, narcissistic writer Tyvian Jones (Stanley Baker) lands among the glitterati in Venice. There, Tyvian is feted, but the self-destructive relationship he enters into with local call girl Eva (Jeanne Moreau) suggests some deep-rooted unease with the adoration. Drained of any postcard warmth, the Venice across which Tyvian obsessively pursues Eva seems an unusually desolate place, its landmark sights frostbitten and barren. Neglecting his devoted fiancée (Virna Lisi) for a woman who openly disdains him, Tyvian seems perversely determined to make his Venice a place where love dies.
Death in Venice (1971)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Marxist aristocrat filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s duelling desire to luxuriate in both the rot and opulence of high society is allowed its fullest expression in this adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella. On a reluctant holiday following a health scare, starchy composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) finds himself enraptured and tormented by Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a 14-year-old boy staying at his hotel on Venice’s Lido. Ageing and creatively spent, Aschenbach is confronted in Tadzio by a perfection he has never realised as an artist, as well as a youthful vitality now beyond his reach.
In the throes of a cholera epidemic, Visconti’s early 20th century Venice is a purgatory in beautiful decay, where the protagonist ruminates on a troubled past and finds his health waning along with the city’s. The film closes on the grotesque sight of Aschenbach, dolled up like a corpse by a local barber, sweating hair dye down his powder-white face as he watches Tadzio strolling care-free in the sparkling waters of the Adriatic.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
In Nic Roeg’s horror on the strain of repair after loss, Venice in the off-season is a city of ghosts. Following the death of their daughter back home in England, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) have relocated to Venice for the winter, where John has taken a job supervising the restoration of a 12th-century church. Laura, meanwhile, finds an outlet for her grief through two holidaying English sisters, one of whom claims she’s in psychic contact with the child the Baxters lost.
Witness to emptied-out hotels, the decay beneath the facades of historic buildings and water-logged bodies being fished out of canals, the Baxters seem eerily privy to a Venice that outsiders aren’t supposed to know. Typically for Roeg, in Don’t Look Now memories fracture and time dilates and contracts, throwing our sense of what reality is in this enigmatic Venice only further into question.
Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
Director: Federico Fellini
Three years after Don’t Look Now, Sutherland returned to Venice – or at least a hellish facsimile of it – for a film about one of the city’s most famous sons. Concerned primarily with the itinerant second half of Casanova’s life, when the famed adventurer sought favour until his death in courts and bedrooms throughout Europe, Fellini’s Casanova begins in a perpetually nocturnal Venice (built entirely at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios) that mirrors the artificiality, excess and creeping decay of its subject.
In the opening minutes, Casanova (Sutherland) is introduced disguised under a ghostly white sheet at Carnevale, where he watches a giant head of Venus rise from and promptly sink in the Grand Canal; rows across a billowing sea made of what appear to be black bin-liners; and arrives at one of Venice’s islands to perform a joyless sex show for an audience. This is Casanova as a mechanical man, in a profoundly un-erotic biopic about the spiritual bankruptcy of a life given solely to pleasures of the flesh.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Answering a call to adventure that will follow the historical path of the Crusades, part-time college professor and full-time action man Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) finds Venice the first stop on a quest to locate both his missing father (Sean Connery) and the fabled Holy Grail. Despite far-off glances at landmarks including St Mark’s Campanile and the Punta della Dogana, however, the younger Dr Jones’ time in Venice is overall less than glamorous.
Beneath the Campo San Barnaba, Indy investigates rat-infested, flammable catacombs, before emerging for an explosive speedboat chase out of the city and into an industrial shipyard (actually Tilbury Docks in Essex). Acknowledging the significance of the Crusades in both Venetian foundation myth and in the literal foundation of the city, the Venice section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a cracking starting shot in a piece of precision-engineered blockbuster entertainment.
The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
Director: Paul Schrader
Uncertain how they’ve ended up on holiday in Venice again three years after their previous trip there, foundering English couple Mary and Colin (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) find some devilish excitement when they meet the wealthy Robert (Christopher Walken) and his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren), who Robert seems to keep locked in a palatial apartment overlooking the Grand Canal. A strange brew, The Comfort of Strangers is headily stylised, with wardrobe by Armani, sun-kissed cinematography by Dante Spinotti and a lacerating, callously unsympathetic script by Harold Pinter.
Pinter’s words are particularly effective delivered by Walken, frightening as a debonair quasi-fascist whose brutal masculinity is so radioactive it seems to pervade the whole picture. Schrader, meanwhile, deploys an Angelo Badalamenti score inspired by Turkish music and uses locations that emphasise the historical Islamic influence on Venetian architecture, his desire to “play Venice as Istanbul” having the unbalancing effect of making a world-famous city seem unfamiliar.
Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell
James Bond has always favoured Venice. It was in Venice that Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi despatched poison-toed assassin Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (1963); where Roger Moore drove a tricked-out gondola-cum-hovercraft, infamously prompting a double take from a pigeon in Moonraker (1979); and where Daniel Craig, playing a rookie 007 still learning to temper his emotions, experienced the trauma that cemented his transition into cold-hearted superspy in Casino Royale.
Having narrowly survived his brush with the villainous Mr White (Jesper Christensen) in Montenegro, Bond resigns from MI6 and flees with fellow agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to Venice, the planned beginning of a romantic world tour. The trip is cut short when Bond tails Vesper to a crumbling palazzo, and discovers she’s been working with White and his goons all along. A firefight ensues, culminating in the palazzo sinking into the Grand Canal and taking Vesper – and Bond’s hope of domestic happiness – with it.
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