home CULTURE The Dark Side of Venice

The Dark Side of Venice

Lee Foust

Even the most casual tourist senses, beneath the romantic lapping of the waves against the bridges and landings along its canals, that there’s something death- ly about Venice. Is it because most mythologies locate the land of the dead across a body of water? Or maybe because Venice’s narrow, ill-lit passages are so much quiet- er than the car-trafficked streets of other cities? Perhaps it’s because classic novels like “Death in Ven- ice” and “Across the River and into the Trees” have told us it’s a place where one goes to die. Or the suggestion that a gondola — judging by its length, width, black lacquer and hanging lamp — is really a floating coffin? Whatever the rea- son, with Halloween at our backs and winter coming on, it’s time to curl up in front of the fire with a couple of thrillers from the late ‘60s that exploit the deserted, dark, and narrow passageways of the Serenissima.

First up, the incomparable Daph- ne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” (1966), a longish short story that heads-up a collection of tales to which it gives its name in the U.S.; the same collection was published in England as “Not After Mid- night.” In the tradition beginning with E. A. Poe’s “The Assignation,” — which combines Venice’s lush, romantic quiet with its melancholy association with death — “Don’t Look Now” adds the psychological side to the classically Gothic themes of love and death among the canals. Du Maurier’s tale depicts a British couple that has recently lost a child trying to come to terms with the tragedy by rediscovering each other and their love on a Venetian holiday. But the past is not so easily left behind and for a spiritual sensitive, it might actually be intricately intertwined with a deadly future. The story perfectly exploits the danger and silence of Venice’s twisted maze of bridges, streets, and dead ends.There’s also a fine film version of “Don’t Look Now.”

Filmed in 1973 by British cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg, it stars the beautiful and accomplished Julie Christie and Yankee Donald Southerland as our troubled travellers. The film intriguingly expands the short story’s situation, giving Southerland’s character a job in Venice (he’s re- storing a church) and adds a Bishop character — in line with the 1970’s mania for Catholic-themed horror films like The Exorcist, et al. Roeg’s exciting visual style and a complex series of juxtaposed inter- cut scenes (expertly edited by Australian Graeme Clifford) steal the show — it’s stylish, sexy, and scary. I also want to praise Patricia Highsmith’s underrated, mostly Venetian-set thriller Those Who Walk Away (1967). Ms. Highsmith is in the news these days with Todd Haynes’ film version of her second, lesbian-themed novel, Carol (also published as The Price of Salt), set for release any day now. While Those Who Walk Away may not be her most immediately satisfying potboiler, I very much enjoyed its attention to detail, both the very real Venetian setting — more fas- cinatingly — the intricate moods of the novel’s protagonist, Ray Garrett, and its antagonist, Ray’s father-in-law, Ed Coleman. Ray enters into a deadly dance with Ed after his wife, Ed’s daughter, com- mits suicide. Beginning in Rome and moving on to Venice, the two men threaten, seek reconciliation, and assault each other by turns in a fascinating narrative maze (featuring sections narrated by each character) that again mirrors Venice’s twisting streets and canals to a T. If you love thrillers, enjoy the Venetian Gothic of du Maurier, Highsmith and Poe. After all, love goes best with a little dose of melancholy, does it not?

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