Director David Lean's favorite film makes its long-overdue Blu-ray bow, and thanks to a sumptuous 4K remaster struck from the original camera negative, it's worth the wait. Set against the breathtaking backdrop of Venice, Italy, Summertime tells the simple, tender story of a lonely American tourist (Katharine Hepburn) and the humble Italian merchant (Rossano Brazzi) who breaks down her defenses and introduces her to love. Lean's lyrical direction, Hepburn's luminous performance, and the grandeur of Venice combine to produce one of the most romantic and beautiful movies of all time. Excellent audio and a few absorbing supplements enhance this stellar release of a timeless classic. Highly Recommended.
Say the name David Lean and such ambitious, sprawling epics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago instantly spring to mind. Surprisingly, though, the director's favorite of all his films is an intimate love story that's also a love letter to one of the world's most beautiful and romantic cities. Summertime has no desert, no jungle, no frozen tundra, and doesn't focus on the neuroses and proclivities of egocentric men. On the contrary, it's a simple, tender tale about a middle-aged, level-headed woman that subtly addresses such painful issues as loneliness, repression, and naïveté while celebrating the elation and liberation of love. All that and the splendor of Venice, too.
Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) - not to be confused with Baby Jane Hudson from the 1962 camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - is a self-professed "fancy secretary" from Akron, Ohio who comes to Venice to find the excitement and romance she's been missing all her life. A single woman of a certain age - or what used to be called a spinster - Jane is both fiercely independent and incredibly inhibited, and despite a fair degree of sophistication, still harbors schoolgirl ideas about love.
As she explores the historic city and records the spectacular sights on her trusty 8-millimeter movie camera, she befriends Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), a plucky street urchin who - when he's not trying to sell her a trinket - helps her acclimate to Italy. The breathtaking beauty of Venice exhilarates Jane but also exacerbates her desolation. That evening, while wistfully sipping an aperitif at a cafe in the Piazza San Marco, she catches the roving eye of an attractive Italian man, but can't handle his intent gaze and rushes away.
That man turns out to be shopkeeper Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), and in a coincidence that only happens in the movies, Jane runs into him again when she unknowingly enters his store to buy a Venetian glass goblet. The awkward encounter both frightens and excites Jane, and over the next several days the emotional, sensual, relaxed, earthy, and self-assured Italian tries to defrost and relax the pragmatic, suspicious, uptight, and insecure American and break down the cultural barriers between them. "Everything happens sooner or later," Renato soothingly tells her, and finally Jane gives in to her feelings and desires, but not before she discovers some information about Renato that makes her doubt his motives.
Few films capture the essence and unique atmosphere of their locations better than Summertime. Lean salutes and glorifies Venice without turning his story into a travelogue like, say, Three Coins in the Fountain, which is set in Rome, but contains a Venice sequence to supply additional eye candy. Lean integrates the island city into the tale and makes it a central and pivotal character. Venice seduces Jane first and helps prepare her for the attention of one of its residents. Though we see some of the city's secluded areas, don't expect Hepburn and Brazzi to tour Venice's underbelly á la Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's deliciously creepy Don't Look Now. Blessedly, Summertime gives us the fairy tale Venice, complete with fluttering flocks of birds, glistening canals, serene gondolas, and to-die-for vistas, and Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard make it look like the most inviting and idyllic place on Earth.
The wispy story brims with emotion yet is told with delicacy and grace by Lean, who adapted Arthur Laurents' hit play The Time of the Cuckoo with writer H.E. Bates. Shirley Booth originated the role of Jane on Broadway and won a Tony Award for her acclaimed performance, but at age 56 she was deemed too old to play the part on the screen, so the 47-year-old Hepburn was cast instead. I've no doubt Booth would have been brilliant (she always was), but Hepburn crafts one of her finest and most understated portrayals, exhibiting a captivating radiance that casts a warm glow over the entire picture.
In some films, Hepburn gets in her own way with her patented speech patterns and distracting mannerisms, but not here. She disappears inside Jane, wearing the scars of a lonely life on her sleeve and perfectly expressing Jane's heartbreaking insecurity and stubborn prudishness before blossoming like a rare flower after Jane sheds her inhibitions and satisfies her longings. Hepburn earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her impeccable work, but lost to Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo.
She also did her own stunts. The memorable scene where Jane falls into a canal reportedly took four takes to complete, forcing Hepburn to repeatedly brave the vile Venice water, which was filled with contaminants. "I knew how dirty the water was," Hepburn told her biographer, Charles Higham, years later, "so I took all kinds of precautions - even washed my mouth with antiseptic, put special dressing in my hair, wore shoes that wouldn't waterlog. But like an idiot I forgot my eyes. When I fell in, I had a startled look, with my eyes open...Well, the water was a sewer! Filthy - brackish - full of trash! When I got out, my eyes were running. They've been running ever since." The resulting ocular infection would plague Hepburn off and on for the rest of her life. Watch the fateful scene below:
Brazzi, with his mixture of tenderness, empathy, and Italian machismo, complements Hepburn well, and their terrific chemistry makes their affair feel authentic. Though he wisely cedes the spotlight to her, he remains an equal partner and strong presence throughout the film, yet never quite gets the credit he deserves for his natural, nuanced performance. It's tough to hold your own with Hepburn, but Brazzi does, and together they make one of the most romantic couples in movie history.
Lean's direction received the film's only other Oscar nomination. (Why Summertime didn't get a Best Picture nod - not to mention one for Hildyard's eye-popping cinematography - remains a puzzling mystery. Was the sappy Love Is a Many Splendored Thing really a more deserving nominee?) Summertime marked Lean's first foray into location shooting, and he never looked back. He also would never again direct such a quiet, thoughtful, delicate, and intimate feature. From Jane and Renato's al fresco meals in the piazza and strolls along the lapping canals to their getaway to Burano and dramatic train station farewell that rivals the iconic scene between Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker in Since You Went Away, Lean never strIkes a false or syrupy note and crafts gorgeous images that will make you swoon.
Like a lyrical Italian serenade, Summertime carries us away, and once you fall under its spell, you'll be reluctant to come back to real life. Lean renews our faith in love while flawlessly depicting its fragility and ephemeral nature. He also reassures us that no matter how old we are dreams can come true, if we just keep the faith and open our eyes and hearts. Jane will always cherish Venice, and after watching the unforgettable Summertime, you will, too.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Summertime arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page, fold-out booklet that features an essay by Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek, a number of illustrations (I would have preferred scene stills), a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Much like Marty, which was released the same year, Summertime has been embroiled in a decades-long controversy over both its intended aspect ratio and preferred aspect ratio for exhibition. Criterion presents the film here in what it claims to be "its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1," while IMDb states 1.85:1 as the 'intended ratio" for Summertime. The 1.85:1 argument makes sense because by 1954 - when Summertime was shot - and 1955 - when the movie was released - widescreen had become the prevalent form of exhibition in the United States. That said, I believe the 1.37:1 ratio, which includes more headroom (some might opine too much), flatters the film by maximizing the Venice vistas. The tall towers, some of which are shot from low angles, would be decapitated in 1.85:1, which would be tragic for a movie that relies so heavily on its setting to enhance the story's emotional timbre.
The wider ratio surely would give some shots, especially those in St. Mark's Square, a more expansive feel, but the cropping I've seen in 1.85:1 screenshots does not look natural to my eyes, and it's hard for me to believe a meticulous craftsman like Lean would condone framing that would cut off the tops of buildings and mar the glorious Venice skyline. Presenting Summertime in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio would have been a good compromise. Better yet, presenting Summertime in both the 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios, much like Kino Lorber has done with its recent Marty release, or best of all, presenting Summertime in 1.37:1, 1.66:1, and 1.85:1, like Criterion did many years ago when it released On the Waterfront on Blu-ray, would have allowed viewers to decide for themselves how the film looks best.
All kvetching aside, it's a joy to finally have Summertime in the high-def format and high time Criterion deemed this beautiful film worthy of a Blu-ray release. Say what you will about the aspect ratio, but there's not much to complain about regarding picture quality. According to the liner notes, "This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry wet-gate film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative...In some instances, duplicate shots had been inserted into the negative, and for those segments the 35 mm yellow, cyan, and magenta separation masters were used." Those shots are indeed noticeable and appear markedly softer and a bit grainier than the rest of the movie, but the instances are brief and comprise only a fraction of the film. Ninety-five percent of Summertime looks gloriously crisp, lush, and filmic, with excellent clarity and contrast, brilliant color, and a natural grain structure combining to produce an often breathtaking image that immerses us in the scenic beauty of Venice.
Rich blacks and bright, airy whites mesh nicely with the vibrant Technicolor palette that's distinguished by bold reds, crystal blues, and verdant greens. The dreamy yellows and oranges of the sunsets cast a mesmerizing spell and the reflections in the canal water, fireworks exploding in the sky, and silhouettes of Hepburn and Brazzi in St. Mark's Square at dawn are well defined. Shadow delineation overall is top-notch, costume textures and bits of decor are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups render fine facial features well. At one point, an errant thread briefly appears at the top of the frame, but that's the only blemish on the wonderfully clean print. Until a 4K UHD edition with Dolby Vision comes along (and hopefully we won't have to wait another 20 years for that!), it's impossible to imagine Summertime looking more ravishing than it does here. So forget the aspect ratio kerfuffle, toss your old DVD in the trash, and upgrade to this stunning Blu-ray rendering of this unforgettable classic.
The liner notes state, "The monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm original optical soundtrack negative." The resulting LPCM track supplies clear, well-modulated audio that's devoid of any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. Subtleties like footsteps crunching against concrete sidewalks, fluttering pigeons, chirping birds, and water dripping from a fountain are wonderfully distinct, as are sonic accents like sirens, church bells, fireworks, the clicking of Jane's movie camera, and the piercing train whistle in the climactic scene. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Alessandro Cicognini's romantic, Italian-flavored music score without a hint of distortion, and all the dialogue is well-prioritized and comprehendible. With so many gorgeous visuals on display, it's easy to take the audio for granted, but this track asserts itself when necessary and helps bring Venice to life.
Supplements are a bit thin for a Criterion release, and though the interviews with Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard are quite interesting, they only briefly touch upon Summertime.
Vintage TV Interview with David Lean (SD, 22 minutes) - This 1963 interview, which was broadcast on Canadian television, covers a wide range of topics, including Lean's austere Quaker upbringing, how he came to love movies, how he got into editing, and his experiences making Lawrence of Arabia. Lean says film is a "director's medium" and movie stars are "puppets"; names Katharine Hepburn as the actor with whom he most enjoyed working; and discusses the challenges of blowing up the titular bridge in The Bridge on the River Kwai and capturing a difficult shot involving a dog in Oliver Twist. Behind-the-scenes black-and-white footage from Lawrence of Arabia enhances this vintage interview.
Featurette: "The Most Beautiful Things in Life: Melanie Williams on Summertime" (HD, 22 minutes) - The biographer of David Lean examines the director's career, notes the "critical trepidation around his work," and addresses Lean's reputation as a cold, emotionless director in this new featurette. Williams also compares Hepburn's character in Summertime to Celia Johnson's in Brief Encounter, points out differences between The Time of the Cuckoo (the play upon which Summertime is based) and its film adaptation, and relates how Lean identified with Hepburn's character.
Audio Interview with Jack Hildyard (13 minutes) - In these excerpts from a 1988 interview conducted for the British Entertainment History project, the Oscar-winning cinematographer talks about the early years of his career and his close working relationship with Lean. Hildyard only mentons Summertime in the final 30 seconds, but cites it as his favorite film.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
Debate the aspect ratio issue all you want, but don't let it steer you away from this excellent Criterion release. Summertime stands as one of the most romantic and beautifully photographed movies of all time, and this 4K remaster struck from the original camera negative immerses us in both the splendor of Venice and touching tale of middle-aged love more completely than ever before. Lean's keen eye and Hepburn's nuanced portrayal add luster to this captivating film that's never looked or sounded better. If you've never seen Summertime, now is the time, and if you're a fan of this timeless classic, an upgrade is a must. Highly Recommended.