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?