or Peril in Venice
version three, 21st January, 2007
1: Death Masks in Venice
In December 1882, Liszt was wintering in Venice with his daughter Cosima and her husband Richard Wagner. The funeral processions of the gondolas began to exert a fascination on the old man and he had visions that his son-in-law would soon die and be one of the corpses floating down the lagoons. It inspired him to write the pair of piano studies called La Lugubre Gondola I & II. Two months later, Wagner was dead and his funeral procession glided down the canals just as Liszt had foretold.
For some years, it was rumoured that Wagner had prostituted himself to King Ludwig of Bavaria in return for the financial support given to his schemes. More recent scholars have tended to the opinion that the Richard who received the Royal seed was probably a servant. When he made his 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti turned the writer Aschenbach into a composer. Not Wagner, however. Instead, he drew on the works of Gustav Mahler, who had died in 1911, the year before the novella’s first appearance. In this, as we shall see, Visconti was following a tradition. In his choice of soundtrack music from the Third and Fifth Symphonies, Visconti implies that these are the works the composer is sketching on the Lido. If so, the composer seems to have retreated from the dissonant modernist idiom of the few bars we hear of an orchestral piece in the flashback. Here is a composer at odds with the public, rather more like Arnold Schoenberg, whose twelve-note technique Thomas Mann appropriated for his later diabolist-composer Adrian Leverkühn. Though he dies to the sombre sounds of the O Mensch, gib acht! contralto movement of the Third Symphony, it is the Adagietto from the Fifth which has become known as the theme to Death in Venice.
It accompanies Aschenbach’s arrival and his return to the Hotel from the station. A generation of listeners now associates the piece with a mood which is half in love with easeful death and a new wave of conductors has tended to take the piece very slowly. In fact, the little intermezzo for strings and harp was intended by the composer as an expression of fleeting happiness. Its earliest interpreters such as Mengelberg & Bruno Walter took Adagietto to mean a tempo rather faster than Adagio: their records of it took two 78rpm sides and played eight or nine minutes. Its association with death seems to date from the nineteen sixties when Leonard Bernstein became the most fashionable Mahler conductor. When he played it in the context of the funeral of JFK, the tempo had slowed to Lento and his recording from 1964 takes some eleven minutes. The version recorded in Rome for Visconti’s film is not quite so slow but it belongs to the tradition of aching sadness rather than lyrical joy.
Though he had been one of the earliest celebrity analysands, consulting Freud in 1910, Mahler’s personal insecurities seem to have been those of a highly-ambitious but unpopular celebrity with a young and unfaithful trophy wife. There is nothing to suggest that his sexuality was pederastic.
Venice incited both envy and hostility as a city of wealth and decadence. The masking and carnival were ambiguous displays by a society given to shuttered secrecy and intrigue. The buildings reclaimed, as it were, from the ocean had a spectral quality, as if the shimmering lagoons had themselves conjured up a mirage of faëry palaces, enticing yet essentially inhuman. The splendour of the buildings was reflected for some observers in the charms of the inhabitants, especially those iconic figures in the landscape, the gondolieri. In 1881, John Addington Symonds was gazing at the twenty-four year old Angelo Fusato, enraptured by his eyes, “as if the quintessential colour of the Venetian waters were vitalized in them . . . he fixed and fascinated me.” This fine specimen of manhood was the subject of many sonnets by this English pioneer of homosexual letters whose memoirs make explicit the way he found Venice itself personified in him. Symonds memoirs reveal a frankly pecuniary relationship between the gent and the boatman which is not obscured by the idealization the writer declares he felt. The young gondolier was vain and spendthrift in his ways, “I was mortified that he spent his cash on dress and trinkets.” Symonds was under no illusion that Angelo hadn’t “sold his beauty” to other men but the Englishman wanted to establish their relationship on a more equal footing than the times and society allowed. In the end he justifies his relationship as affording him an insight into a man very different to himself. Symonds was frank about his resort to paid male companions and the tradition of the gondolieri being available to wealthy male visitors was usually transformed in literature, where the boatmen were clothed with the more acceptable aura of heterosexual romance.
If Symonds tended to direct his attentions to athletic and manly types, the more pederastic inclinations of Mann’s Aschenbach were strikingly prefigured in the homoerotic reveries of the failed Catholic priest and ornate stylist Frederick Rolfe, who preferred to style himself Baron Corvo. Falling on hard times, having exhausted the patience of his patrons, Rolfe was reduced to living rough in Venice during the years 1909 -10. He occupied himself writing a series of luridly pornographic letters, which may have been designed to allure pederastically-inclined patrons to his aid. These letters were not, I think, published at the time and indeed have appeared in only a few rather limited editions since the nineteen seventies but they may well have been known in some specialist circles at the time. Rolfe continued to live until 1913 but the pleasures of Venice he promised were of a kind that might have caused the idealizing spirits of Mann and Symonds to turn away in disgust.
The symbols of Death in Venice are drawn from literary tradition, going back to the Greek tales of the stranger-God Dionysus, who brought the promise of renewal in the form of drunkenness, orgies and abandonment of the socially constructed and constricted self. But, as the author’s widow revealed in her memoirs, such creations as the elderly fop and the etherial youth were drawn from life, as witnessed on a visit to the city in the year of the novella’s publication. Details, such as the gondolier of bad reputation, who departs without payment, seem to be references to Charon and the coin due but Katia Mann assures us that just such an incident took place. A pretty Polish boy in his sailor-suit did indeed attract the attention of her husband at the Hotel des Bains, though Katia insists that Thomas Mann did not follow him around and was merely “always watching him and his companions on the beach.” Confusion over luggage did lead to the Manns returning with pleasure to the Hotel, when a villa they wanted proved unavailable. There was a flesh-and-blood singer of obscene songs who pestered the guests at the hotel and rumours of cholera were confirmed by an English agent at Cook’s. The Mahler connection arose, not from rumours of his sexuality, as is occasionally suggested but because there were regular bulletins about the dying composer’s condition during that season and Mann based his physical description of Aschenbach on him, a resemblance which was confirmed by the illustrator Wolfgang Born in a privately printed edition of 1912.
When the novella was translated into Polish, word reached Katia Mann that the Polish family had read it, recognized themselves and were not offended by the interest the German writer had taken in them. The identity of the boy has been established as Wladyslaw, the future Baron Moes, whose date of birth was 17th November 1900. He informed the Polish translator that he recalled the holiday and the old man who had watched him fight with his friend Jan Fudakowski on the beach. By accident or design, Fudakowski showed up in Venice as a man of around seventy years of age, during Visconti’s filming of the story. He showed the director photographs of himself and Wladyslaw taken on the Lido in May 1911. Visconti followed Mann’s text in casting the boy Tadzio as a fragile adolescent of about fourteen, problematic enough for many viewers. A Tadzio of that age can be wreathed in classical allusions, even if the drapery hides little or nothing. But a Tadzio of ten and a half!
Visconti saved Wagner’s music for his massive epic on the subject of Ludwig. The full-length version of this is now available on DVD. Perhaps one day we shall also have Rotunno’s restored version of Senso. The 1954 picture was the first Technicolor film to be made in Italy. Visconti was unusual in managing to get his grand visions onto film. However, his wealth and influence seemed powerless to preserve those visions intact, once the fillm was made. Time after time, his pictures were distributed in forms which their director disowned. The case of Senso was unusual in that an English-language version was produced simultaneously with dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. Though credited on subtitled prints, they made no contribution to the Italian version. Yet the English-language version which circulated briefly in America was not exactly what Visconti had planned: retitled The Wanton Contessa, it was reduced by thirty minutes. Even the two hour standard version, issued briefly on VHS by Warner Brothers, was not what Visconti originally intended. I am still unclear whether Rotunno’s restoration - which was unveiled at the 48th Locarno Film Festival - restores Visconti’s first version, which is said to have run 140 minutes, including a lot more footage of the battles.
Set in Venice during the Austrian occupation, the film is another tale of infatuated pursuit. This time the object of passion is handsome light-in-love Austrian officer Farley Granger, followed through war-torn Europe by the besotted Alida Valli, who leaves her husband. Again, passion leads to degradation. She sacrifices everything for this serial philanderer and at their reunion, he cruelly mocks her, preferring his drunken revels with a courtesan. The long opening scene was filmed at the opera-house La Fenice. When it burned to the ground, Visconti’s film of its lush interior was one of the best records that survived to be used for its restoration. Though the film begins in the sound-world of Il Trovatore, Visconti will make his first raid on the German classics to give an implied depth to his visions of doomed idealism: the composer was Anton Bruckner and the slow movement of his Seventh Symphony was chosen for its aching langours. It seems likely that Visconti was fully aware of its intended meaning for this was Bruckner’s own lament for Richard Wagner and his sombre scoring included the tenor tubas which are associated with the doom laden events of The Ring. For his own Götterdämmerung, a version of the Krupp saga, filmed as Il Cadutto degli Dei in 1969 and known in English as The Damned, Visconti would avoid the German classics and commission a film score from Maurice Jarre.
Liszt’s vision however was appropriated more or less as it stood as a key supernatural event in Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. Her novella is an ironic spook-tale, teasing the reader with distorted echoes of Mann’s famous tale: instead of a pale Adonis we have a red dwarf, instead of pederastic homosexuality we have tweedy dykes, instead of unconsummated longing, a celebration of loving coupling after a sexual drought. Despite the inversions, the tale will obey the cruel structure of the underlying myth: what promises to be a renewal will turn out to be deadly. Du Maurier will hive off the classical apparatus: all that Apollo versus Dionysus freight which was such a stumbling block to Benjamin Britten in his opera of the same period. Her dried-up pederastic scholar would get his own story in the same collection, Not After Dark. The most startling omission from the story is Roeg’s unforgettable English prologue with its painful death of a child. His use of the drowned red-coated girl as a binding motif seems so fundamental to the story that Du Maurier should have given herself a good kicking for letting the girl die of meningitis. Yet that illness also has a connection back to Thomas Mann, where a child’s death is related to syphilitic infection and the perversion of music in Doctor Faustus. Mysteriously, the brothel-scenes of that novel are drawn on by Visconti in the flash-backs of Death in Venice. The convoluted sexual symbolism of Doctor Faustus revolves around a repeated mermaid image. We will see this sexual symbol employed as a charm in Don’t Look Now. Traditionally defensive, the brooch against the Jettatura takes on an ominous significance in this context.
Slavoj Zizek, self-styled cinema pervert and Lacanian critic, has asked plaintively whether we are allowed to enjoy Daphne Du Maurier as a writer. Acknowledging that she has proved more successful on the screen than on her own pages was probably not a good strategy to employ in an introduction to her works and the publishers declined to print it. Taking Rebecca as his key text, Zizek sees her as standing between Romanticism and Freud as an apostle of feminine masochism.
According to her biographer Margaret Forster, Du Maurier had a private way of referring to her heterosexual and homosexual experiences: Cairo and Venice. “She said she felt the pleasure was greater with Venice than Cairo because she felt more in control that way.” The 1993 biography revealed that she had two grand but unrequited romantic passions: Ellen Doubleday and Gertrude Lawrence. At the same time, she was deeply in love with her husband, Frederick Browning. To celebrate the centenary of her birth, the BBC is producing a drama entitled Daphne, which explores the sexual ambiguities of her nature.
Venice has attracted writers and film-makers for years. The website fictionalcities.com has surveyed the field very well so there is no need to reinvent that wheel. It misses out the poetry, so should really be supplemented by references to Browning, Byron, Shakespeare. Painting is another massive study, from the schools of painters resident there to those who explicitly celebrated its charms, from the bright sunshine of Canaletto to the chiaroscuro of Piranesi and the peeling plaster of John Piper. Turner’s visions of sun and sea and sky also fed the imaginations of those embarking on the Grand Tour; like the work of the engravers, the invitation often led to disappointment at the damp and lived-in reality of the city.
Considering its literary heritage, the cinematic exploitation of Venice has not been so rich as we may casually expect. Many an economic production has settled for a few establishing shots of the canals or Saint Mark’s before retreating to the studio. The glamour of the place has dazzled many a producer but the attention is not held for long: all too often, the movies have flirted with Venice, treating it as a brief stop-over on their itineraries. The plots are set there but are not rooted in the villas, the squares and the mazes of the canals. The fictional cities website finds thirty or forty films worth commenting on but only a subset even of these could be said to treat the serene city more or less as a character in the drama.
I would single out the astonishing Carnival of Venice sequence in the late silent version of Casanova by Volkoff from 1928. While various parts of that epic movie were tinted, this reel employed the labour-intensive Pathé-Colour process, which used a pantographic process to tint individual regions of each frame. The result is that characters in coloured costumes can be seen moving in front of different-coloured backgrounds. This was applied to footage of the maskers at the contemporary carnival, the gondolas on the lagoon and the extravagant firework displays. By the nineteen sixties, the out-of-season resort was captured in austere black and white as Losey’s Directors of Photography, Henri Decaë and Gianni di Venanzo did their best to out-chic Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in that mad, hobbled mess of a sado-masochistic fantasy which is Eva. It is upwardly-mobile Welsh miner-writer Tyvian Jones, played by Stanley Baker, who has his Torcello Island dwelling broken into by the amoral courtesan Eva, played by Jeanne Moreau in her full pouty pomp. She leads him a merry dance, goading his sexual interest by flaunting her other affairs but refusing to be possessed. While Volkoff made use of the traditional carnival, Losey shot his actuality footage at the Venice Film Festival, giving the mutilated work a reflexive dimension. Recut by the Producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim, and given very limited exposure, Eva was for many years an unseen cause celebré. Only a few minutes of the excised footage has surfaced since in a sub-standard foreign print but it is hard to see what kind of additions could rescue the handsome but solemn-silly tale. With Torcello however, we arrive at a new beginning.
2: Cottaging at the Cipriani
Torcello Island in the Venetian Lagoon has only a hundred or so residents today but is home to one of the most celebrity-haunted restaurants in Europe. The stars who have dined at the Locanda Cipriani make an impressive list: Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder. The film festival seems to have swelled the numbers. Donald Sutherland was there in 1991 and raised a glass to the memory of Fellini, for whom he had played Casanova. The restaurant has a website where you can enjoy the whole gaudy carnival. For the likes of you and me, bookings, are, of course, essential. The primacy of film over literature may be reflected in the strange omission of Daphne Du Maurier from the litany of past customers. Maybe, as a writer, she went unrecognized on her visit. But her omission is peculiar because she set the opening of Don’t Look Now at the Cipriani. It is there that two tweedy lesbian sisters fascinate Laura. It is at the Cipriani that she follows one them into the toilet to see if she is really a transvestite. It is at the Cipriani, that Laura first titilates her husband with these lesbian fantasies which will quickly turn sour when she seems to be abducted by the pair. If some of the aggressively lesbian style of the pair has evaporated from their dress in the film, Roeg more than compensates by making Hilary Mason act out a fearsome breast-squeezing climax during the seänce.
3: Awakening to Peril
The association of the city of Venice with serenity and sleep is ancient. Giorgione is credited with establishing a genre of paintings in which death and sleep are entwined. A place more than half in love with easeful death. Yet a place associated with cruelty, bloody punishment and sighs. Always at the mercy of the sea, Venice had suffered severe floods in 1966. A period of scientific studies concluded with an alarming report which indicated the great city was sinking into the ocean. An international fund was established for Venice in Peril in 1971 and the artistic community was galvanized into a massive fund-raising effort to reinforce the foundations of the city’s architectural treasures. Concerts, exhibitions, television coverage all helped to focus the minds of the world on the plight of the Pearl of the Adriatic. It is hardly surprising that the early seventies saw a series of major artistic creations which used the threatened city virtually as a character. There is some internal evidence that Daphne du Maurier’s story which first saw the light of day in 1970 had been conceived and partly written many years before. It certainly contains few if any contemporary references and the couple John & Laura appear to belong to the pre-war leisured classes for whom a motoring holiday was conceived as a species of Grand Tour. Visconti filmed his musical adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in 1970 - 71. At the same period Benjamin Britten had been working on his opera based on the same novella: it was first performed in 1973. When Stravinsky died in 1971, he chose to be interred on San Michele. His obsequies included a performance of his last major work, the Requiem Canticles in the Basilica of Saint Mark’s. Unlike Britten, who held off from viewing Visconti’s picture for fear it might influence his own work, there is much to suggest that Roeg was well aware of the Italian film and composed Don’t Look Now as a kind of reply. Certainly the Venice in Peril theme is incorporated into the movie, with Sutherland playing an imagined part in the international effort to save the city’s foundations: a poster for the fund is plainly seen on the church in one scene. Ironically, during his work, he comes to a realization that the building is not Byzantine but a later fake. He is restoring a fake, just as he is tantalized by a red-coated simulacra.
4: The Mermaid’s Tail
Belief in the Evil Eye or Jettatura is powerfully established in Italy, where it can be traced back to the Roman belief in fascinare, literally the binding of others by the gaze. A sideways look, an envious glance, the stare of someone with clouded or unusual eye-colour and the gaze of a dwarf or deformed person could all be interpreted as Jettaturi. It is a belief which takes us to the heart of witch-lore, where a destitute woman’s envious gaze at a field of cattle could lead to her death, should a sickness break out to decimate the herd. The Jettatura was likely to occur when people were at the top of Fortune’s wheel and vulnerable to life’s reverses. In Don’t Look Now, the Baxters are depicted briefly in contentment after a Sunday lunch en famille. The future looks rosy but instead turns into a violent red blot. The pain of bereavement is summed up in an agonized cry which morphs into a pneumatic drill on the foundations of a Venetian church. Another spectacular fall occurs as Sutherland is matching a newly-manufactured mosaic piece to the image on the wall. We may glimpse one of those pieces in an unexpected place: on the elaborate brooch worn by Clelia Matania in her rôle as Wendy, the sighted sister. This is no ordinary piece of jewelry but a typical Italian charm against the Jettatura or Evil Eye. In its classic form, the mermaid would have a double tail, underlining the sexual potency which clings to this old magic. The sisters represent some dark inversion of this very Italianate business: does Wendy wear the brooch to protect herself from her blind sister’s power?
5: The Beam & The Eye
John Baxter’s fragile hold on earthly life is demonstrated in a trapeze-like sequence. He has earlier nearly lost his footing while positioning a grotesque statue on the outside of the church, establishing his vulnerability. The actor’s ungainly frame makes his exposure this way strangely analogous to Laura’s emotional woundedness. John’s brutal dismissal of Laura’s reincarnation fantasies can be interpreted as a a denial of his own weakness, over and above the cruel-to-be-kind intention of making acceptance of death’s reality a condition of some kind of recovery. His anger is ugly to behold but by exposing his own raw nerves, he does not necessarily lose our sympathy. His first slip is observed by the mysterious sisters. In the more dramatic later sequence, he is suspended on a fragile platform high in the basilica when a beam inexplicably descends, like a bolt from the rafters, unbalancing the structure. His struggle to regain control is highly dramatic and the emotional aftermath has an honesty which adds to the impact of what could seem a very far-fetched incident. His near-death experience is conceived in such strongly physical terms that it prepares us - if anything can - for the outrageously physical circumstances of his actual death. A bloody silly way to die, indeed and a bold inversion of the conventions of a ghost story. There is a silent laughter after his early brush with death: as he takes a walk outside with the Bishop, a poster on the wall shows us the image of Charlie Chaplin with the title One Against All. The scene we have just witnessed would have been played as comedy in the time of the silents, though perhaps it is more a Harold Lloyd scene in essence. The cane, the moustache, the fussy little mannerisms were all to be seen in The Little Tramp but it was Chaplin’s portrait of the wife-killer Monsieur Verdoux which embodied these traits in their fullest, most floridly effeminate form and in so-doing alienated the general public. Though Dirk Bogarde’s performance as Aschenbach has been widely admired, some viewers find it increasingly Chaplinesque as the film progresses. Visconti treats his Finale with great solemnity but the bitter laughter by the fountain and the running mascara on the beach are essentially closer to I Pagliacci than Parsifal.
6: Death’s Door & Beyond
Hitchcock had made three major films drawing on the work of Daphne Du Maurier. His adaptations of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn were fairly faithful to the source material. Rebecca has sometimes been described as a product more of Selznick’s philosophy than Hitchcock’s. By the time he made The Birds, Hitchcock kept only the central idea of an attack by birds on mankind, though in the character of the tweedy bird expert, Mrs Bundy, played by Ethel Griffies, Hitchcock presents us with exactly the kind of Well of Loneliness period lesbian stereotype which Du Maurier employs in her Venetian tale. If there are useful parallels to be drawn between Don’t Look Now and a Hitchcock picture, however, they are not one of his adaptations of her work. His 1955 “remake” of The Man Who Knew Too Much loses most of the political urgency of the 1934 original. In its place, Hitchcock turns to the mysteries of life and death in a version of the Orpheus myth. This powerful theme can be easily detected in films such as Vertigo but it may be slightly less obvious in TMWKTM55 because it is a son not a wife who is rescued from Death’s Door. In this case, the son has been kidnapped by a pair of abusive false parents. Jimmy Stewart is the doctor who is used to his Janus-faced position between life and death; he has developed a professional distance from the sufferings of his patients, seeing their ailments in terms of dollars earned. He is also used to medicating his wife, played by Doris Day. Their marriage is already under some strain, due to his insistance that she retires from her profession as a singer and lives as a fifties housewife. The relationship between John & Laura in Don’t Look Now is similarly depicted. Appearing happy and loving, the stresses expose some fault-lines which are comparable, though Laura’s happiness at the message from beyond the grave is contrasted with Doris Day’s more direct hysterics at the loss of their son. Strikingly, both films feauture the husbands seeking to control their wives by medication at a time of crisis and both hint at a longer history of mental imbalance. Both movies also make much of the way in which a switch of circumstances can turn foreign surroundings into an alienating nightmare. Both films propel their comfortable middle-class couples out of their tourist grooves and into a labyrinth of back streets, backwaters, kitchens and staff quarters.
While Hitchcock’s film is essentially a comedy - the highly-compressed final scene is effectively a general awakening of the Dead! - Roeg takes us into the curious tomb-like bedroom of the Prince-Bishop, where a votive lamp flickers like one of those mysterious eternal flames, rumoured in the annals of the Rosicrucians and elsewhere. The image of the tomb as the ultimate destination of all travellers is evoked in the Munich-set prelude to Death in Venice, where Aschenbach is first fascinated by a stranger. This is the figure of a Bavarian traveller, who stands before the premises of a mortuary chapel in the Northern Cemetery. It is this vision which stimulates the blocked writer to travel in search of refreshment. Visconti omits it from his film completely, unwisely breaking into the narrative later with his own flash-backs which unconvincingly set some Socratic dialogue in the form of a debate between composer and pupil.
7: Supporting Features
It was an accident brought about by the loss of faith in The Wicker Man which caused British Lion to hack it down to a suitable length to play as the supporting feature to Don’t Look Now. They were not planned as a double-bill and the two crews would have worked in total ignorance of each other’s work. The stylized eye of the British Lion logo naturally appears in original prints of both pictures, though on DVD, it has been replaced by the loud and hideous Studio Canal identifier. It must also be a curious coincidence that both films contain symbolic charms to ward off the Evil Eye: in Don’t Look Now, it is the showy mermaid brooch worn by one of the sisters which Sutherland examines in their pension room. In The Wicker Man it is an eye painted on the prow of a boat: this would be common enough in the Mediterranean but the boat was simply an object found during location filming and had not been specified in the script. Both films feature a man lured to a bizarre end by a young girl, who may not be what she seems.
The name of Laura had been associated with both Venice and a blind maternal figure accused of witchcraft in an earlier death-haunted work: La Gioconda. Ponchielli’s lurid opera of 1876 set a libretto by Tobia Gorrio, actually an anagram of Arigo Boïto. The libretto was not an entirely original work, being based on Hugo’s Angelo, tyran de Padoue of 1835. The translation of the action to Venice was one of Boïto’s modifications. Having got Venice out of his system, he presumably had a clearer conscience about omitting the scenes in that city from his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. La Gioconda foreshadows Tosca in its dark tale of a singer entangled with a spy of the Inquisition and driven to suicide. The mingled gaïty and melancholy of the city’s serenades and masques are caught in Ponchielli’s vast score, one of the few Italian works to keep the stage from the years when Verdi held a virtual monopoly of success.
Don’t Look Now was the first major film score of Pino Donaggio. Eclectic in style and inclined to be over-sweet in its most emotional moments, the expressionist manner of supernatural movies is mainly avoided, except where Sutherland visits the sisters’ pension. A its most effective where propelled by baroque ostinato figures on the strings: these are redolent of the concertos of Vivaldi, after all, what could be more appropriate than the Red Priest of Venice! The sicklier strain is drawn from the kind of mood that Giazzotto put in the mouth of Albinoni, another Venetian figure. Liszt’s premonition of Wagner’s death would have been a more erudite choice for the funeral scene, though it may have been too austere to please a wide audience.
8: Dionysus in the Med.
The entire classical apparatus of Mann’s novella was ditched by Visconti as essentially uncinematic. Britten retained it, attracting much criticism not so much for the wordy recitatives in which it was rendered explicit but for the extensive balletic episodes, which seemed to dissipate the tension of the main narrative. Much of Mann’s story is concerned with the struggles of Apollo and Dionysus for the soul of Aschenbach: dreams of a Freudian nature invade his fevered imagination and undo his tightly-wound and disciplined personality. The invasion of Dionysus, the Stranger-God, undoing the civil life of the city by an injection of booze, dance and sex is one of the most potent of the Greek myths. The Bacchae of Euripides, operas by Henze, Wellesz and Szymanowski have revisited the theme obsessively. It was an entrenched theme of the German philosophers who saw the tension between Apollo’s order and Bacchic chaos as a representation of one of the fundamental dichotomies of the human soul. In English Literature too, the theme has had many an outing as the undeveloped senses of the repressed Englishman underwent the fertilization of the Mediterranean in many a Forsterian narrative, later to be a mainstay of the white linen output of Merchant-Ivory.
If Daphne Du Maurier, like Visconti, left the old Gods out of Don’t Look Now, they were certainly given their due in Not After Dark, the second tale in her 1971 collection. I do not think this potentially cinematic story has been filmed: it awaits a Hitchcock to bring it fully to life for it is saddled with a terminally dull central character. We are explicitly informed that this economical, middle-aged bachelor has come to the Greek Islands with some dusty scholastic agenda but his sexual awakening is not expected: he has already gone through his pederastic adventures as a schoolmaster. He is left to encounter the God of Wine in a curious narrative which involves submerged jugs, weird brews and a frog-woman! Central to the Dionysus myth was the allure of his intoxication, the threat of his worship to the established order and the atrocious fate of his followers, who could tear themselves to death, leap from high rocks or dance themselves stupid. Yet Dionysus also seemed to offer renewal to tired old bones. Mann offered a later variant on the same idea in a story which morbidly advanced his fascination with sickness: in The Black Swan, a middle-aged woman besotted by a young man comes to believe that miraculously her periods have returned. In fact the bleeding is a symptom of carcinoma. This morbid tale has not been given cinematic treatment, though the title coincides with a pirate movie after a novel by Rafael Sabatini.
9: Motes & Beams
Laura’s bizarre cottaging quest in the book is sensibly supressed in the movie. The couple in Du Maurier’s tale are a less sympathetic pair, given to snobbish sneering at the provincial lesbians, who must have scrimped and saved for their economy-class holiday. Instead, the filmic Laura’s kindness and generosity of spirit is underlined by her desire to assist the women to the Ladies, after a window has blown open and sent a piece of grit into the eye of the seeing sister. The old Biblical saying of motes and beams will be startlingly dramatized when a beam from above comes flying into the picture later without explanation but with nearly-fatal consequences for Sutherland. The sinister laughter of the sisters will later cause us to question this meet-cute as something quite possibly engineered. Perhaps the sisters had been fans of Brief Encounter, whose railway romance has been given many a gay interpretation that contemporary audiences may have missed.
Death in Venice has many ironies, in the end sacrificing the artist-hero to a general plague. He fantasizes about approaching the Polish family with a warning about the rampaging cholera but in his prevarications, he cannot even save himself. In this, he is a blackly comic inversion of the hero of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, who earns his sobriquet by speaking out against the contaminated spa. Ibsen’s play has itself been the subject of at least two movies: it was the prestige dream-project of Steve McQueen who invested his own money in a 1977 production. The international appeal of this cholera story is attested by the adaptation made by Satyajit Ray ten years later: he transported the action to modern-day India. Neither of these made much impression at the box-office, however the theme of a resort choosing for commercial considerations to remain open, despite a lurking danger, proved rather more lucrative when the danger was characterized in the form of a shark rather than a bacillus in the water.
10: Dead Horses & Drowned Children
Stories of accursed films, like many a haunted inn, sound like the inventions of publicity departments. There is a story that Donald Sutherland had received with some scepticism a fortune-teller’s prediction that he would shortly be filming in a villa, since no such project was on the cards. A film he was due to appear in was cancelled, leaving him suddenly free to accept another part. This also had no villa scene until a late change in the script specified a villa located in a desert, as had been foretold. This was a forgotten 1968 film called Joanna, which the Monthly Film Bulletin described charmingly as, “an unnecessarily protracted punishing of a very dead quadruped.” Mike Sarne, the director, would go on to make the notorious film of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.
A much darker tale is told of Julie Christie. In March 1979, some six years after Don’t Look Now, the actress called at her Welsh farmhouse which was then occupied by a couple and their two-year-old son. During her visit, the body of the boy was found floating in a shallow duckpool and the mother waded into the water to retrieve it, exactly as Sutherland does in the film. If this is an invented tale, it is a mightily unpleasant one and its date so long after the film makes it unlikely to be the invention of a publicist. I first read the tale in The Unexplained part-work during the early eighties. The version here is derived, as is the Sutherland tale above, from Beyond Explanation, a collection of celebrity encounters with the paranormal written by Jenny Randles in 1985.
It would be no use asking the star herself, I fear. It was reported in 2002 that Julie Christie was no longer accepting work - at least not work which involves remembering much. She is suffering from a condition called Biographic Amnesia. “I can’t remember any bad things, only the good things, if I can remember anything about my past at all.” According to Dr Nora Newcombe, a psychologist from Temple University, Philadelphia, the condition is rare and results from a trauma to the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored. “Normally this is caused by temporary oxygen starvation, such as nearly drowning.”
According to an interview published in The Observer dated 1st April, 2007, the memory story was a false one: “She spoke once on American public radio about the comedy of getting older and not being able to retain your lines. The same article also gave Christie a son called Luke, who played in a rock band. She wrote a sharp letter in reply which suggested that her condition must be worse than she thought, since she had completely forgotten that she had a child.” The interview was published to help promote a new Christie movie in which she plays a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.
277.D: N. Roeg: Don’t Look Now, 1973, colour, wide screen, mono, 105′26″
120.V: Volkoff: Casanova, 1928, tints & Pathé-colour, full screen, restored version, from February 1997 broadcast, 132′20″
083.V: L. Visconti: Death in Venice, widescreen, colour, from BBC broadcast, July 1995, 125′
264.V: L. Visconti: Senso, from Warner Bros. VHS tape, full screen, Italian, subtitled print, 116′00″
141.V: J. Losey: Eva, widescreen, black & white, 1962, from broadcast, November 1997, 103′21″
096.D: A. Hitchcock: The Man who Knew Too Much, 1955, widescreen, colour, 114′40″
098, 099.D: R. Hardy: The Wicker Man, 1973, 84′00″ + 99′40″
Katia Mann: Unwritten Memories, 1974
D. du Maurier: Not After Dark, 5 long stories, 1972
Thomas Mann: Death in Venice & Other Stories, translated & introduced by David Luke, Vintage Classics, 1988, 1998 paperback
Frederick Thomas Elworthy: The Evil Eye, 1895
J. Randles: Beyond Explanation, 1985
Boïto: La Gioconda, 1876
Halliwell’s Film Guide, 2006
M. Piper: Libretto of Death in Venice for Benjamin Britten, 1973
Ed. Phyllis Gosskurth: Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 1984
A. J. A. Symons: The Quest for Corvo, 1934, Penguin 1950
E. Black: Memory Forces Actress to Give Up Acting, The Scotsman, 22nd April, 2002
Website of the Locanda Cipriani Restaurant on Torcello:
Fictional Cities: Venice. Website covers Stories & Films:
The Divine Miss Julie, interview, 1st April, 2007: