David Lean’s transitional movie

As I noted in my earlier post on the death of Sir John Mills, there are a handful of David Lean films that I have not yet seen, Ryan’s Daughter (1970) — for which Mills won an Oscar — being one of them.

But with that one exception, I have actually seen all of Lean’s films since Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (my comments); and thanks to the Pacific Cinematheque, I have also seen the first several films Lean made with Noel Coward, up to the sublime Brief Encounter (1945). The period in-between, however, is almost completely foreign to me, apart from Hobson’s Choice (1954), which was one of the first films my father taped off of TV.

So, yesterday I watched Summertime (1955), in which Katherine Hepburn plays a spinster who finds romance with a married man in Venice. This was the last of Lean’s “small” films, but you can feel him itching to do something “bigger”. The hints of adultery and the way Hepburn goes for a walk while strings play softly in the background bring to mind the use of Rachmaninov in Brief Encounter, but the way in which Hepburn is mesmerized by the religious statuary looks ahead to Judy Davis’s encounter with Hindu sculptures in A Passage to India (1984).

Overall, it’s an okay film, but not one of Lean’s best; Hepburn is very good as the woman who fears the romance that she longs for, but Rossano Brazzi, as her love interest, is a bit of a dud. Actually, all the women fare better than the men, I think.

Hepburn’s character says at one point that she’s the “independent” type, but I was reminded of a remark Mark Steyn made, after Hepburn’s death two years ago:

She learned a big lesson: her Connecticut refinements played a lot better for laughs than they did straight, and they needed others to ameliorate some of the hard edges. Thereafter, she hardly ever put herself in the position of having to carry a movie. “There’s a magnificence in you,” Jimmy Stewart tells her in The Philadelphia Story, a play she commissioned. “You’re lit from within.” But we see it because it’s reflected through his laconic charm, or through Spencer Tracy’s easygoing bit of Irish rough, or through Humphrey Bogart, or John Wayne, or the various other halves of what became a familiar uptown girl/downtown guy double-act. She became loved because of the men who loved her. And thus the great paradox: a woman admired for her strength and independence was more dependent on her co-stars than most of her contemporaries.

We could presumably add Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole and Henry Fonda to that list. And the lack of a strong leading man is definitely a problem in Summertime. Nevertheless, this film apparently marked the second re-birth of Hepburn’s career, as it was her first film since her MGM contract expired three years earlier.

It is interesting to see that this film, directed by such a quintessential Englishman, is actually about an uptight American who is swept up in the passion of Italy; this just might be the only David Lean film, except perhaps for the set-in-Russia Doctor Zhivago (1965), in which none of the main characters is British.

There are still some signature Lean moments, though; naturally, the film begins on a moving train and ends with a train pulling out of the station. And I do like the way he captures the look and feel of Venice; I was there myself 15 years ago, and while I certainly wasn’t a middle-aged American woman out looking for romance, I was still a tourist, and the film brought back fond memories.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

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