Foreign travel has never seemed more alluring than in the opening hour of David Lean’s bittersweet romantic fantasy about an Ohio spinster, played by Katharine Hepburn, on her first trip to Europe. A wide-eyed traveler, she’s dazzled by Venice. But when she meets a handsome antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi), her idyll suddenly enters a disorienting new dimension. Why, she even falls into a canal.
Although he also made Death in Venice, Italian director Luchino Visconti actually does better by the city in this opulent 19th-century melodrama about seduction and duplicity. A heart-wrenching Alida Valli stars as an Italian countess who falls hard for an Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger), but he’s not the ardent soul he appears to be.
There’s no speedier tour guide than James Bond. This movie’s delirious Venetian chase scene begins with Roger Moore’s 007 sitting in a gondola like a dresser’s dummy. But when he’s attacked by a funeral cortege, forget about oars—it’s time to fire up the engines. Soon, Bond’s gondola is bombing past landmarks, slicing other boats in half and, once out on the lagoon, turning into a hovercraft so 007 can glide into the Piazza San Marco and be serenaded by an orchestra that just happens to be playing there.
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
In the acclaimed TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, naïve Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) and his friend Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) flee Brideshead manor, which is run by Sebastian’s overbearing Catholic mother. They head south to visit his runaway father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), who’s traded in British dankness for Venetian freedom—and a warm, carnal Italian mistress.
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
Equally renowned for beauty and rot, Venice proves the perfect backdrop for the amorous machinations of impoverished English lovers (Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache) eager to scam money from a dying American heiress (Alison Elliott). Closer to Dangerous Liaisons than to Henry James’s original novel, Iain Softley’s ravishing costume drama shows how easily Venice’s grand palaces and picturesque side streets can curdle into corruption.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
This is the greatest of all Venice movies, as Nicolas Roeg transforms the city into a living being—an unforgettable character who stays in your head forever. Eerie and riveting, this horror film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who, mourning their dead child, move to Venice to restore a crumbling church. They’re soon swallowed up by the city’s hallucinatory blend of fading grandeur, untrammeled libido and unsettling dreams.