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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: Death In Venice (1971)

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#1 of 12 Herb Kane

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Posted February 03 2004 - 08:08 AM

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Death In Venice (1971)

Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 1971
Rated: PG
Film Length: 131 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Enhanced Widescreen
Audio: DD Mono
Color/B&W: Color
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
MSRP: $19.98
Package: Snap Case

The Feature:
On February 17th, Warner Bros. will release three internationally acclaimed and award winning films from two of the greatest Italian directors ever. Michelangelo
Antonioni’s Blowup and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and Death In Venice. The Cannes Film Festival rewarded Death In Venice with a nomination for the Golden Palm and it won Visconti the 25th Anniversary Prize Award. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The WB press release indicates all three films boast “all-new widescreen digital transfers” …we’ll get to that in a minute.

Gustav von Aschenbach (who’s said to be loosely portraying Gustav Mahler, played brilliantly by Dirk Bogarde) is a professor, conductor and composer who is on a sabbatical of sorts, resting and vacationing in Venice, circa 1910. He is somewhat of an aloof and curt man lacking in patience necessary to gel amongst society. Though much of the story is told by way of flashback, Luchino Visconti's film adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella is a visual masterpiece, and a philosophical thought provoking story about beauty and his obsession with it.

While von Aschenbach is convalescing at the hotel in Venice, he becomes entranced, almost fixated with a young adolescent boy who is also staying at the hotel. He is struck by the beauty of young Tadzio (played by Björn Andrésen) so much so that he becomes obsessed with the boy, who’s the object of von Aschenbach's desire. Von Aschenbach remembers his beloved wife, his deceased daughter and he feels miserable.

Tadzio is his means to an escape, to cherish the inner beauty of a pure young boy unattainable in such a perfect way, but it is an ideal that the composer does not ever wish to attain. Even when he does touch him to fluff his hair, it is merely a gesture one might make to any child, in a somewhat reluctant yet platonic way. Although Tadzio is admired, the interaction between the aging man and boy is limited to distanced glances from afar and the occasional smile.

After von Aschenbach witnesses parts of the city being disinfected, it becomes clear that cholera hangs over the city, and the director reflects this in morose gloomy scenes within the beautiful city of Venice. Although city officials are reluctant to announce the epidemic for fear of the tourism repercussions, von Aschenbach is finally told the truth but now must make the decision to leave the crumbling city or to risk his health and stay after finally finding the beauty he so longed sought after.

This is ultimately a story of a personal crisis, which is revealed by the older man in love or infatuated (?) with an adolescent boy which is somewhat unsettling albeit, in a non homoerotic context. Death In Venice is one of those films that enters your consciousness and surfaces when you least expect it to – one of the many qualities that’s said to be necessary to be a great film. Interestingly, the film is more of an ideal in which its characters speak probably less than a couple of hundred words in a two hour period. We’re left with haunting images which appear throughout the film, especially the final scene on the beach as Tadzio walks slowly into the water.

Much to talk about… where do I start? Filmed in my favorite AR of 2.35 and considering the absolutely breathtaking scenery with much of Venice as the backdrop, this is a film that should have been a visual beauty. That’s not to say the cinematography isn’t near perfect, but unfortunately the video presentation isn’t.

Let me start by saying that I have never seen this film before on any medium – period. So it’s near impossible to make matter-of-fact claims without having seen it elsewhere, so I’ll merely stick to what I observed noting the good and the bad.

The image quality was all over the map in terms of detail consistency. There were scenes where the detail was razor sharp which varied to other scenes which looked downright out of focus. For the most past, I would classify the image to be somewhat soft with infrequent periods of a sharp detailed image. Black levels were deep and rich and white levels were for the most part, stark and nicely contrasted although they took on a “snowy blue” hue to them occasionally.

Though the colors were mostly vibrant and nicely saturated, there were infrequent scenes where they were somewhat muted. Some good examples of these vibrant colors could be seen in the music room of the hotel where the ladies gowns, the flowers and the stained glass looked almost alive with color. Flesh tones were particularly accurate looking, only looking somewhat red on a couple of occasions.

Film dirt and scratches were kept to an absolute minimum however there were frequent occasions of jitter and light shimmer. Light speckle was also present, albeit, rather sporadically. Much of the film takes place outdoors with a very sunny background and while enhancement was occasionally present, it wasn’t bothersome as I actually had to look for it. There was only a moderate amount of film grain.

I hate to use this expression as I have done so in the past, but I subscribe to the notion that many films from various periods have a distinct look to them (a look of that decade, if you will) and this film has a definite look of the 70’s to it. Not a criticism, merely an observation. Needless to say anyone who’s familiar with the film, I’d welcome your comments.

While the video portion had what we might refer to a number of idiosyncrasies, the audio portion simply had a great deal of imperfections. No need to tippy-toe around this one.

Let me start by discussing the dialogue. There were many occasions where dialogue was lacking clarity. Sibilance was also problem-some as it also became an issue as dialogue seemed compressed during its occasion. While hiss was present, it was rarely bothersome but the frequent bouts of static that accompanied it, was indeed as distraction. Static seemed to be almost voice activated which was exacerbated when voice levels would crescendo.

The track had a peculiar sense of dynamics. Footsteps at times could barely be heard, and then say the din of a restaurant or the setting down of a glass would be almost concussive - and annoyingly so. Even during many piano sequences, the thumping on the keys created a thud that was downright aggravating.

Basically the entire film was accompanied by Gustav Mahler’s beautiful Third and Fifth Symphonies. Unfortunately, there was no sense of any separation or spaciousness to the track to allow a true sense of appreciation for the music – it was just plain flat, which I found to be most disappointing.

When you’re down, they kick ya… There were also occasions of the track being out of synch particularly at the 21:38 and 119:40 marks not a big deal, but noticeable.

Unfortunately, the track leaves a lot to be desired and in this case it was the beautiful accompanied music of Mahler that suffered.

Special Features:
There are three special features included. They are:
  • Visconti’s Venice which is a somewhat dated although interesting making-of featurette which includes brief comments from Visconti and Bogarde. The feature starts with Visconti traveling to the set early in the morning by boat through the many canals of Venice and we see the preparation of one of the final scenes as the family with Tadzio is crossing the bridge through the smoke filled streets. A very nice find and inclusion to accompany this film. Duration: 8:59 minutes.
  • The next feature is A Tour Of Venice which is a gallery of still photography featuring 30 B&W photos of the shoot.
  • Finally, the Theatrical Trailer is included which is in reasonable good shape.

Final Thoughts:
Perhaps for a lack of a better expression, this is certainly a film that is “style over substance”. And while the film accentuates the point of beauty, idealism and to some extent, inappropriate obsession, my only criticism of the film is that it simply takes too long to get where we need to go and belabors a point that in my opinion is abundantly obvious. However, though some scenes are painfully slow, I do have to wonder if the film would have been nearly as profound had it been, say, 20 or 30 minutes shorter. Dirk Bogarde is absolutely brilliant in this film - he is the film. Without him, this film wouldn’t exist!

As I mentioned earlier, this is a film that should be a visual sight and sound to behold. Unfortunately the video portion is what I would classify as satisfactory, however, the audio presentation is plagued with problems.

This is a beautiful film overflowing with emotion and atmosphere but to be clear it’s not a film for everybody. I’d venture a guess that fans of foreign film fare or those of Visconti will pick this up, but do so knowing the A/V presentation has a few anomalies.

Release Date: February 17th, 2004
My Top 25 Noirs:

25. 711 Ocean Drive (1950), 24. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), 23. Desperate (1947), 22. Pushover (1954), 21. The Blue Dahlia (1946), 20. The File on Thelma Jordon (1949), 19. He Ran All the Way (1951), 18. The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 17. The Killing (1956), 16. I Walk Alone (1948),...

#2 of 12 John Hodson

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Posted February 03 2004 - 08:30 AM

Your comments on Bogarde are interesting Herb; Alec Guinness turned the role down, and while Bogarde is superb, I think Guinness would have been perfection.

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#3 of 12 Mike Frezon

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Posted February 03 2004 - 08:37 AM

Herb, you just answered a question I had asked over in "Coupons & Bargains" earlier this week. As I was compiling info on this week's Warner Screen Legends releases for the Weekly RoundUp, I discovered that Warner released this week's six titles as a seven-title package in Australia. The missing title this week was....Death in Venice.

I guess they held it back in order to be able to release it with The Damned and Blowup.

Thanks for the info AND the great review. Posted Image

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#4 of 12 Jon Robertson

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Posted February 03 2004 - 11:54 AM

I suspect the alleged problems you describe with the transfer are simply a result of the frequent use of zoom lenses by Visconti throughout the film. I saw a new print of this recently, and it's clear much of the photography conveys the decay within the city, hence the frequent lack of bright Technicolor images.

Personally, I feel it's an unqualified masterpiece - an overwhelmingly sensual exploration of coming to terms with one's own mortality and desires, but desperately trying to escape from them at the same time and recapture an idyllised past. To say it's a triumph of "style over substance" is a little unfair, because the style IS the substance - it's a very internal, mood-driven film and there's virtually no dialogue in it. However, I can also well understand how someone could be utterly bored to tears by it.

#5 of 12 Gordon McMurphy

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Posted February 03 2004 - 10:42 PM

I think it's a great film, hauntingly beautiful with a great performance by Bogarde.

It's good to see that Visconti's films are finally making their way to DVD. Any chance of a review of The Damned, Herb?

Thanks again, Herb. Posted Image

#6 of 12 Herb Kane

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Posted February 04 2004 - 04:04 AM

I think it's a great film, hauntingly beautiful with a great performance by Bogarde.

It's good to see that Visconti's films are finally making their way to DVD. Any chance of a review of The Damned, Herb?

Yes Gordy... just not sure when. Hamlet also arrived today, so I want to go to work on that one as well.

Regarding my "style over substance" remark, just to be clear, it was not meant flippantly or facetiously. I was merely trying to convey that in a film with dialogue, where (as was recognized in my review) there are less than 200 spoken words, how the film works was probably as important as why the film works, if not more so.

Funny thing... I've since watched 2 films since DIV, both times I walked out of the theater thinking of DIV...

My Top 25 Noirs:

25. 711 Ocean Drive (1950), 24. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), 23. Desperate (1947), 22. Pushover (1954), 21. The Blue Dahlia (1946), 20. The File on Thelma Jordon (1949), 19. He Ran All the Way (1951), 18. The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 17. The Killing (1956), 16. I Walk Alone (1948),...

#7 of 12 Mike Thompson

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Posted February 04 2004 - 08:32 AM

We lost one of the greats when Dirk died a few years ago. The initial reaction was mixed, to say the least.

In his autobiography, Bogarde recounts the story, told him by Visconti, of the first screening of Death in Venice for "the American Money," i.e., a room full of studio executives. "[W]hen the lights went up in the Los Angeles projection room," Bogarde writes, "there was not a sound, and no one moved. Visconti said that this encouraged him enormously: obviously they had been caught up in the great emotional finale of the film.

"Not at all. Apparently they were stunned into horrified silence.

"No one spoke. Some cleared their throats uneasily, one lit a cigar. A group of slumped nylon-suited men stared dully at the blank screen.

"Feeling perhaps that someone ought to say something, anything, a nervous man in glasses, got to his feet.

"'Well: I think the music is great. Just great. It's a terrific theme. Terrific! Who was it did your score, Signore Visconti?'

"Grateful that anyone had shown the remotest interest in his film, Visconti said that the music had been written by Gustav Mahler.

"'Just great!' said the nervous man. 'I think we should sign him.'"

#8 of 12 Paul_Scott


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Posted February 04 2004 - 09:13 AM

thanks for the review Herb.
these three film weren't on my radar, although i've heard them referenced over the years.
the themes of DIV sound intriguing, but the execution looks a bit iffy, and your concerns with its a/v presentation don't help get me too enthusiastic.

i may pick this one up from CH if they offer it.
i'll be looking forward to the reviews of the other two, and very much looking forward to what you think of the Hamlet disc (the next must buy on my horizon).

#9 of 12 Jon Robertson

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Posted February 04 2004 - 10:22 AM

Mike - thanks for the biggest laugh I've had all day!

Herb - most of Visconti's films have a way of staying with you and seem much more powerful and evocative while remembering them in the days afterwards, then if you watch them again - WHAM!! As I said before, they're such internal pieces of work, they really require the viewer to ruminate over them for a while until you can get the most out of them.

#10 of 12 MikeGale



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Posted February 04 2004 - 02:29 PM

Back in college, we used to refer to this film as "Slow Death in Venice." I haven't seen it since...maybe it'll play better now that I'm an adult...if not, it should at least be good for insomina.

#11 of 12 Jason Hughes

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Posted February 05 2004 - 01:02 PM

Can't wait for the review of The Damned, but meanwhile, does anybody know of any others out there?
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#12 of 12 Michael R. Cantone

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Posted February 08 2004 - 12:19 PM

Re: the sound on the DVD of DEATH IN VENICE, it might interest you to know that there were 4-track magnetic stereo prints in circulation in 1971. I can't fathom why Warner Bros. didn't seek out that mix. I'm sure the Mahler "Adagietto" would have been far more overwhelming and stronger in that manner. Also, keep in mind that DEATH IN VENICE was dubbed into English, so it will definitely sound unnatural. In terms of the video transfer, I have the 1998 LaserDisc release of DEATH IN VENICE. For a LaserDisc transfer from almost six years ago, it still held up well. I for one can't wait to see the DVD to do a proper comparison.

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