The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series takes a trip to Venice this week for David Lean’s bittersweet romance Summertime (1955). My favorite shot from the film is a simple one. To set the stage: less than ten minutes of movie are left, and Katharine Hepburn’s wistful American tourist has an announcement to make. “Listen, Renato,” she tells her Italian beau, a gentle man played by Rossano Brazzi. “I’m leaving today.”
This two shot, lasting roughly two minutes, contains the whole of their final conversation. “I shall always love you,” confides Renato, leaning toward her. She gives a little rolling nod and tries to stiffen her jaw, tears quickly pooling in her eyes. “Yeah,” she sighs, and the syllable has unexpected gravity thanks to her inimitable New England accent. This is a very tight shot, but Hepburn shifts whatever would normally be said with body language into her face, which is rigid, then loose; distraught, then opening into a melancholy smile.
All the while, water ripples in the canal behind them. These surroundings are quiet and out of focus, keeping all our attention on the couple in the foreground, but still the water and brick pillars linger as a reminder of of the Venice she’s about to leave behind—and as the hypotenuse of a loose right triangle that further tightens the shot’s emphasis on its actors. This shot isn’t showy, but it is beautiful. It advances the plot and showcases Hepburn’s acting while still providing us something rich to gaze upon. This is how you stage a break-up: with visual modesty and minimal fuss.