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“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

He came to acting with the Irish city boy’s instinctive aversion to the Method’s open, emotional display based on affective memory. He mistrusted any director who would probe and pry too much behind the hard-earned facade, instinctively more comfortable with Kuleshov’s dictum that “people performing organized, efficient work appear best on the screen.”

Growing up Burt Lancaster represented for me the values of Old Hollywood royalty, an impression formed after I first saw childhood favourites such as Tough Guys and Trapeze. Here was an actor with all the physical traits of a American celebrity – bronzed, bright blue eyes,with an athletic build and a ready smile – with an evident intelligence and grace in his manner. I knew very little about him, but I had inherited a sort of awe for the man from my parents.

As it turns out, Kate Buford’s biography describes how he was a producer of independent film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine. That was a movie my dad would often talk about, so I feel an even greater affection for the actor/producer than I did before.

Of Scotch-Irish stock, with his grandfather traveling to the States from Ulster, Lancaster was born in New York’s East Harlem. As such he grew up with Jewish and Italian-American children of immigrants. The values and cultural influences of that early time would stay with him for the rest of his life. I was confused at first as to why Buford mentioned his film with Viconti, The Leopard,  so regularly in the early passages of this book, until she reveals that his performance in that film was the culmination of that childhood heritage. The film casts a New York Mick as an Italian aristocrat without any hints of an imbalance. It was the role Lancaster was born to play.

The other great influence on the actor’s career was his entering into the life of a circus acrobat, along with his long-time friend Nick Cuccia. There he discovered a talent for the trapeze and a discipline that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. The young, bookish boy with a slight frame had grown into a tall, muscular performer, with a domineering voice that could bellow from the centre of a stage just as well as ply his audience with a coaxing Irish charm.

Lancaster’s discovery and rapid elevation into the craft of acting, following his return from America’s World War II campaign in Italy, was notable not only for the speed of his ascent, but his desire to control his newfound career. From early on, the ambitious autodidact paid close attention to every aspect of business on film sets, quickly developing his own opinions on how things should be done, before forming a partnership Harold Hecht to produce films, with Hecht-Lancaster becoming a mini-studio in their own right, winning Oscars for films such as Marty. Lancaster’s ability to capitalize on his celebrity by making a studio picture to pay off bills before jumping at another personally chosen independent project set the tone for indie cinema auteurs in the future, such as John Cassavetes or Steven Soderbergh.

With fame came of course inevitable temptations. In this regard Burt Lancaster was no trail-blazer, his wife Norma raising an ever increasing family of children while he philandered with co-stars. His decent family man image and fame was also at risk due to his association with suspected communists and radicals during the HUAC Senate hearings. Lancaster, Buford notes, was no communist, but carried with him the values of loyalty to friends that he had learned in New York’s East Side. The despised liberalism of his associations was more evidence of survival traits he had learned growing up.

What is remarkable about Lancaster’s career is the way in which he weathered such controversies, including chinese whispers about his own sexuality, to sustain a very successful film career. Until ill-health robbed him of the ability to do so, he continued to appear in films well into his old age, include well-known hits such as Local Hero and Field of Dreams. Despite his much-feared explosive temper, he was also noted to be quite humble in taking credit for the advantages of his fame, unlike his self-proclaimed ‘buddy’, Kirk Douglas. Lancaster’s involvement in political fundraising went mostly unremarked upon, with the exception of prominent AIDS awareness ads in the 80s.

Buford’s book is a fitting celebration of a remarkable period in Hollywood history. Recommended for the eager cineastes out there.

Who has not battled a fleeting shudder, a secret dread and anxiety upon boarding a Venetian gondola for the first time or after a prolonged absence? That strange conveyance, coming down to us unaltered from the days of the ballads and so distinctively black, black as only coffins can be – it conjures up hush-hush criminal adventures in the rippling night and, even more, death itself: the bier, the obscure obsequies, the final, silent journey.

Luchino Visconti’s film of Death in Venice was always a favourite of mine, with its use of Mahler and beautiful Venetian scenes. I never got round to reading source material though, Thomas Mann’s classic novel about artistic frustration and obsession. Now I realize Visconti conflated elements of two of the German writer’s books – Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus – changing the main character’s profession of writer to music composer, presumably as the themes of the novel are more easily translated to film if the subject is music and not literature.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a celebrated author who has received commendations from his king, his writing selected as class texts for school children and now in his fifties, enjoys a high level of fame and privilege. One day as he takes an afternoon constitutional through his home town he sees a strange man who catches his quizzical gaze and embarrasses Aschenbach by glaring back at him. Caught up in these feelings of embarrassment and shame, the writer’s calm is thrown off-balance and he is suddenly seized by a desire to travel. His orderly existence is too predictable and tiring, he needs a holiday to refresh himself. Some weeks later he sets off, eventually arriving in Venice in the grip of an unpleasant heatwave.

With the city’s canals rising and the humidity pressing upon Aschenbach’s delicate constitution, he decides to leave shortly after checking into his hotel. However, he happens to see a family of Poles dine in the hotel and is amazed by the startling appearance of a fourteen year old boy in the group. While the boy’s three sisters are dressed conservatively and obediently follow their governess, their sibling has long golden hair, wears less formal clothing and seems to be the most spoiled of the children, the constant centre of attention. Aschenbach learns that the boy’s name is Tadzio and begins to find excuses to spend his days down at the beach to watch the his object of obsession at play, even choosing to have his meals at the same time in the hotel. Even as the city’s climate continues to become more oppressive, with officials ordering restrictions that no one seems able, or willing, to explain, the celebrated German author ignores his suspicions, allowing his new obsession to take over.

Thomas Mann commented that this story was an effort to discuss the ‘dignity of the artist’, and the current translation by Michael Henry Heim contains an interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham that argues all books are in effect translations, attempts to capture the idea dreamt up by the writer’s mind with the written word. Aschenbach is troubled by the thought that he has become conventional. He enjoys his fame and national renown, but underneath he is aware that it is a poor recognition of his desire to achieve perfection in his art. He is obsessed with abstractions, ideal forms and “particulars”, becoming more divorced from life by his philosophical musings.

Mann introduces several odd individuals who are very particular indeed, robbing the author of his philosophical poise. First there is the stranger visiting his home-town, who inspires his sudden feelings of wanderlust. Then there is a fellow passenger on the boat to Venice, an aging dandy, whose face is heavily made-up. Then the cartoonish musician, with the mocking uncontrollable laughter that may in fact parody the effects of the pestilence the Venetian authorities are covering up. I would argue that Tadzio is yet another of this group, a ‘particular’, that Aschenbach’s philosophy cannot reduce to theses or antitheses. His sudden admission of ‘I Love You’, is a complete loss of self-control, a statement that is made with no one else present to witness it.

Death in Venice is a book about love, or rather desire. Aschenbach abandons all his hard-won professorial airs and has a barber dye his hair and plaster his face like the dandy on the boat. All to make himself look young enough for Tadzio.

A beautiful, tragic fable.

They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script.

I am woefully ignorant of the history of the Italian state. It has always been a source of great curiosity for me, though I have yet to take the time to educate myself. Di Lampedusa’s novel offers a sop to the one desire, describing the advance of Garibaldi’s republican forces and the history of the island colony of Sicily, while also inspiring a new fascination with the life of the author. The Leopard was published post-humously and is one of two books available to modern readers by the writer, the other a collection of critical essays.

The novel describes the slow demise of the Italian aristocracy, faced with the twinned forces of a republican uprising and a burgeoning nouveau riche upper middle class. Prince Fabrizio of Salina presides over his remaining family estates and shrinking interests, attempting to gauge the movement of history. The story begins in the summer of 1860, with the prince paying tribute to his king and afterward granting audience to his own tenants and peasantry. Rumours are growing of an invasion by Garibaldi’s armies. Fabrizio takes council to determine if his interests are threatened by the soldiery. His own nephew Tancredi, for whom he has guardianship, announces that he has joined the red-capped revolutionaries. In him, Fabrizio sees the future of his family line, siding with the tide of modernity that will wash away the Italian fiefdoms and principalities.

The prince has that fatal quality of tragic heroes, being more intellectual and disinterested in his own fate, allowing younger men to take charge. The novel links the passing of old traditions and class with the encroachment of age. Fabrizio’s interest in astronomy is described as a scientific echo of long-dead Roman paganism. He yearns for a more concrete sense of an unchanging, eternal world, seeing only upstarts and vulgar soldiers becoming the new architects of society.

One such bourgeois, Don Calogero Sedara, has a daughter. The rakish Tancredi, returning from combat, spurns the interest of Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta for the more ravishing, and wealthy, Angelica. He entreats his uncle to make the match between the two families. While Fabrizio is wary of elevating the Sedara family’s station, he admires his nephew’s cunning and opportunism. Tancredi’s own father wasted his inheritance and left him penniless as a young man. In this marriage he seeks out a stronger position for himself, just as throwing in his lot with the republicans ensured he was not on the losing side of the conflict. Fabrizio finally agrees to the match, conscious that in doing so the Salina family’s decline is assured, though the young man he regards as a son will thrive.

It is gratifying that this translation of Di Lampedusa’s manuscript by Archibald Colquhoun retains so much of the original’s wit and wordplay. The free association of Roman gods and the starry sky at night; the prince’s retainer describing how Angelica’s grandfather was known as Peppe Mmerda, fertilizer which eventually led to Tancredi’s beautiful fiancé; the allusion to Shakespeare quoted above, as well as references to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin. Luchino Visconti’s film of the novel was itself a study in opulence confronted with low vulgarity, with the leonine Burt Lancaster in the central roll.

The story itself continues on into the 20th century, showing the eventual fate of the once mighty blond prince’s family, whose feline intelligence is passed on to his embittered spinster daughter Concetta. The significance of the title is a reference to Fabrizio’s nickname, as well as to the fair-skinned, light hair of the Italian nobility. The prince explains to an emissary of the newly formed Senate at one juncture how Sicily is a much conquered colony, having hosted Moors, Spaniards, even the English, yet takes a perverse pride in its permeable heritage. The republican movement unknowingly is simply yet another authority, an aristocracy in all but name, which will be tolerated by the people of the island as every other invader has been.

This is a poignant study of mortality, both of the aging Leopard himself and his entire class’ way of life. A sublime classical work of historical fiction.

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