Venetian Bird deserves to be much better known. In some ways it’s similar to the Carol Reed films, The Third Man (1949) and The Man Between (1953). In those films, a British/American character finds himself in a post-war city (Vienna and Berlin respectively) involved in a murky investigation which involves an aspect of wartime legacy and contemporary issues focused on a man who doesn’t necessarily want to be found. As the title suggests, this 1952 film is set in Venice which is beautifully rendered on screen by Ernest Steward on only his second feature as DoP. Steward would go on to shoot many films for producer Betty Box in the 1950s and she should get great credit for an excellent overall production. The music too is worth noting, one of several scores for British productions in this period by Nino Rota.
Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas had got together as a team for the first time in 1950 to make another excellent and under-rated thriller The Clouded Yellow. It was a difficult period just then when Rank was re-organising and consolidating its resources. Betty Box survived the closing of the old Gainsborough Studios which she had helped to run with her older brother Sydney. He had run the main facility in Shepherd’s Bush and Betty had run the smaller studio in Islington. By 1952 she was safely housed at Pinewood and working effectively with production chief Earl St. John. Betty and Ralph Thomas would become a very effective team at Pinewood making more than 30 films over the next 25 years. Most of them made money, especially the comedies and with her husband Peter Rogers producing the later Carry On series, the couple could be seen as keeping Rank afloat until the mid 1970s. Betty Box eventually developed a strategy at Rank which involved her agreeing to make yet another ‘Doctor’ comedy (i.e. Doctor in the House, 1954 etc.) if in return the studio would finance one of her own more interesting adventure films. These were often made abroad and particularly in Italy. Her love affair with Italy began with Venetian Bird, almost completely shot in Venice.
Venetian Bird was adapted from a novel by Victor Canning who wrote the screenplay himself. Canning was a prolific writer from the 1930s onwards whose work became more widely used in cinema and then on TV from the 1950s. He had been stationed in Italy during the war and his detailed knowledge of Venice proved useful in deciding on locations. The central character of the film is Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) who arrives in Venice on a mission for a Paris insurance company. He is charged with finding an ex-partisan named Renzo Uccello (John Gregson). ‘Uccello‘ can have several meanings in Italian, some rather dubious, but ‘bird’ is perhaps the most common? Mercer gets help from a seemingly respectable brothel-keeper Rosa (Margot Grahame) who he knows from previous visits to Italy and his investigations lead him to a large house acting as a form of art gallery with a diverse collection of objets d’art and here he meets Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a beautiful young woman who at first seems impervious to his charms and who manages to appear to be helpful without giving Mercer any real help at all. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Uccello doesn’t want to be found and that somebody wants Mercer out of the way. Eventually Mercer is investigated by the police who at first let him go before he is framed for a serious crime, making him a wanted man.
I’ve read quite a few comments on the film (mostly American) which complain that it is too ‘talky’. That’s a common American complaint about European films. ‘Too much’ dialogue is perhaps a question of taste, but I think the plot does get over-complex at times and I did get confused. Part of the problem is explained by Betty Box in her autobiography Lifting the Lid (The Book Guild, 2000). The local Italian officials were generally supportive of the shoot but they demanded certain changes for political reasons which although on the surface don’t seem to have made much difference, actually make the political action in the film hard to follow. Some other commentators criticise the camerawork and suggest this is a low budget film, a ‘British ‘B’ film noir‘. This is just nonsense. The film was distributed in the US by United Artists. In the UK it was certainly an ‘A’ picture.
One of the difficulties of a retrospective viewing of the film is that the three main leads were all in the early stages of their careers as leading players. Richard Todd and John Gregson were the same age but Gregson had a lower profile in his early career at Ealing. Todd had found instant success while under contract to ABPC, being nominated for an Oscar in the lead role of The Hasty Heart in 1949 alongside Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. The apex of his career was playing as Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955) after which it slowly declined through the 1960s. In the 1950s though he offered a young, handsome and virile persona. Some commentators see Venetian Bird as a forerunner of James Bond style thrillers. Ian Fleming is said to have wanted Todd as Bond for Dr No. As a public school and vocally Tory figure he would have made a very different Bond. John Gregson became a star later with light comedy roles such as in Genevieve (1953) probably dominating his other familiar roles as decent men with integrity in war pictures. In this context his Italian partisan with dubious politics seems odd casting but this is the role that might have been most altered by interference from Italian authorities. Although the film was shot almost completely in Venice, all the main Italian characters are played by British actors. Eva Bartok was Hungarian but her English is very good in the film. Betty Box had originally wanted Gina Lollobrigida but at this time her English was not yet good enough for the part. Ms Bartok was quite difficult to deal with but I think her performance works well in the completed film and after this film and the earlier The Crimson Pirate (1952) with Burt Lancaster, she became a familiar lead player in both British and German films.
The chase scenes in the closing section of the film feature rooftops and spectacular shots of Venice. They are reminiscent of those at the end of The Clouded Yellow (which ends at Liverpool Docks). There are suggestions that these sequences might have influenced later Hitchcock films and they certainly look familiar when compared to numerous later European thrillers. Betty Box includes one interesting anecdote about the studio support for the film. Michael Balcon, Head of Ealing was also a major producer at Rank and he voted against making Venetian Bird because it had only one British character and was “a story about Italian people against an Italian background”. For Balcon it wasn’t a ‘native’ narrative. Earl St. John disagreed and the picture went ahead. Balcon’s attitude, which was perhaps justified in wartime, seems way out of date by the early 1950s. Betty Box thankfully ignored Balcon’s limited view and made several more films in Europe in the 1950s and ’60s.