Venetian Bird

Post-war Europe made for an ideal backdrop for tales of intrigue and mystery. Aside from the fact the Cold War was never far from the minds of contemporary audiences, the natural chaos present in a continent still in the process of healing the wounds left by six years of all-out conflict created the conditions and circumstances which lent themselves to the telling of such stories. There are numerous examples of movies exploiting this turbulent and uncertain period, some of which – The Third Man, The Man Between, Diplomatic Courier, The House of the Seven Hawks, Berlin Express – I’ve already featured on this site. Ralph Thomas’ Venetian Bird (1952) is another which fits into this grouping, mixing in the themes of political chicanery and fake identities.

Confusion frequently follows in the aftermath of war; people get lost and people disappear. Many are forgotten, existing only as memories buried beneath the rubble, but not all of them. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) arrives in Venice in search of a man who seems to have vanished. Mercer is a detective hired by a grateful American who wants to reward an Italian for his bravery during the war. The man he’s seeking is Renzo Uccello, but it’s not just a matter of looking in the phone book. Uccello is an elusive figure, and Mercer’s efforts to track him down draws the interest of others. He’s followed to his initial point of contact and the man he hopes will offer him a lead is first assaulted and later murdered. Thus it’s clear enough that certain parties don’t want the whereabouts of Uccello known. The question of course is why. Uccello isn’t being sought for any crime, quite the opposite. Mercer’s quest means delving into the past and Uccello’s activities with the partisans of the Italian resistance. As he digs deeper he’s encouraged to believe the object of his search has died, but Mercer remains unconvinced. Not only are there clues suggesting Uccello is very much alive, but there are also indications that he’s involved in something dark and criminal. The closer Mercer comes to the truth, the greater the danger as he is gradually pulled into the murky and volatile world of post-war Italian politics. Before long he finds his role switched from that of hunter to hunted. What started off as a routine investigation develops into conspiracy, assassination and a man hunt taking in the alleys, canal and rooftops of Venice.

Films which use political machinations as their basis can flounder under the weight of their own self-importance if they’re not careful. Mercifully, Venetian Bird keeps the political aspect firmly in the background, the motivations and allegiances are blurred and of importance to the characters rather than the audience. Victor Canning’s script, adapted from his own novel, remains focused on Mercer and his search for Uccello. There’s always the sense that powerful men are manipulating the events but the viewers only concern is how this affects the protagonist, not their wider impact. The pace does flag a little here and there, a little trimming of the script wouldn’t have hurt, but director Ralph Thomas and cameraman Ernest Steward create some nice noir-style visuals and draw as much suspense as possible from the tale – the climactic chase across the rooftops is especially well filmed and quite exciting. The location shooting in Venice is a big plus and adds a touch of realism to the pulpy story. The movie is also notable for its score, provided by the highly regarded Nino Rota.

Richard Todd was in the middle of a fairly strong run of movies when he made Venetian Bird – he’d recently come off The Hasty Heart and Stage Fright, and The Dam Busters was still ahead of him. As Mercer he was a solid leading presence, although I’m not sure he really got across the ambiguity of the character – Mercer is referred to as having taken part in certain illicit activities in Italy in earlier times. Still, he was personable enough and handled the physical stuff satisfactorily. Eva Bartok’s biggest Hollywood role was in Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, made the same year, but I’m most familiar with her from a handful of British pictures. She had a fairly substantial part in this film as the principal link to Uccello, and does quite well – we’re never 100% sure where her loyalties lie and she managed the internal conflict of the character successfully enough. George Coulouris was always a welcome face in the movies and is good value as the local police chief. The other notable roles are filled, with variable success, by John Gregson and Sid James. You wouldn’t automatically think of either of these men as first choices to play Italians, particularly if you’re familiar with their body of work in British cinema. As such, it’s hard not to be distracted by their presence. In support, there are good turns from Walter Rilla (father of director Wolf Rilla) and Margot Grahame.

Venetian Bird was a Rank production and wasn’t the easiest movie to see for a long time. I used to own a promo DVD which came free with a Greek newspaper some years ago but the transfer was a poor one with a pronounced green hue. It’s recently been released in the UK by Strawberry Media (AKA Spirit) who distribute certain Rank/ITV titles. The disc is a vanilla affair containing just the movie and no extras whatsoever. The print used is in pretty good condition with no serious damage on view. Contrast seems to be set at the right level with nighttime scenes looking suitably inky and atmospheric. It has to be said that this company isn’t always the most reliable when it comes to aspect ratios but that’s obviously not an issue here with a 1952 movie. I’m not going to try making a case that Venetian Bird is a top British thriller but it is a solid and entertaining mid-range effort that’s professionally made. Overall, I think it’s an unpretentious film which flirts round the boundaries of noir. I always enjoy British movies of this period and the location shooting is a nice bonus. While it’s no lost classic, it’s worth checking out and it’s not at all a bad way to pass an hour and a half.

25 thoughts on “Venetian Bird

  1. Lots of people have difficulties imagining Sid James in dramatic roles, even though he did quite a few in his earlier years, let alone one with an accent. Having said that, this film has what I’d call a semi-serious part for James and the accent is something of a half-hearted effort.


    • Mike, I wouldn’t want to oversell it but it’s a nifty little British thriller that’s quite stylishly shot on location. The cast all give good value and the DVD is reasonably nice – it’s worth keeping an eye out for anyway.


  2. I have to still to catch up with this one Colin but it sounds just up my street (and not just for it’s Italian locale 🙂 ) – glad to hear the DVD is a decent, that makes it even better!


    • Yeah, I think you’d like this one, Sergio. The Italian locations would add another layer of interest for yourself but it’s a good little mystery too. Those Spirit DVDs can be a bit hit and miss at time. This one is reasonable enough – not blindingly good but perfectly acceptable.


  3. This is one where I actually read Victor Canning’s novel before I caught up with the film, Colin. As you said, it’s no classic but it is a most entertaining thriller with a pretty good cast and fine locations. It’s one of those “comfort food” films for me where i am looking to be entertained without having the brain over-taxed!


  4. I have read most of Canning’s novels, Colin, certainly those from the 40s and 50s and many beyond. I see that ABE Books are offering a copy of it for £0.60 + postage.

    It seems most of those earlier novels are now very hard to find – glad I picked ’em up when I did, in the 70s and 80s.

    I would recommend any of these books really, including ‘Venetian Bird’ if you happen to enjoy adventure mysteries from that era (I do).


  5. I love this one; a real gem of a story. So many like this don’t get decent (or any) DVD attention. For every one like this that I know about, twelve pop up that i’d love to see, but may never get to. A hard thing to bear in such modern times.


    • Tell me about it! There always seem to be movies that it’s virtually impossible to get your hands on, especially British ones.
      I’ve spent years hoping someone would get round to releasing State Secret (1950) and Rough Shoot (1953).


      • It’s a grim scene at times, but having been born well before the advent of the internet, DVDs, and yes, even VHS, I honestly can’t complain too badly. I’ve managed to procure and watch, in the last decade or so, more of my wishlist films than the previous several decades by quadruple. 🙂

        Don’t get me started on British gems…if not for the recent spate of Brit WWII film releases, I might be a tad upset. There are SO many I’d LOVE to see!

        Thank God for the grey market DVD guys; they may only be DVR copies from VHS, etc., but in these days of Warner Archive top-dollar DVRs, it’s hard to complain about any reasonable watching opportunity!


        • Well yes, one of the positive aspects is the fact most of our wish lists have shrunk dramatically. In a way though, it makes the hold outs a little more frustrating. But, as you point out, there are always ways and means.


          • Have you not yet seen “Rough Shoot”, Colin? Of course, it stars Joel McCrea (in his only non-western role post 1946) and that is a big factor. But actually it is a really good film, with a fine supporting cast of British character actors (Marius Goring, Roland Culver).

            When Rupert Pupkin Speaks puts up my “Under-Rated Thrillers” list you just might find a familiar title amongst them…..


            • I saw Rough Shoot only once, Jerry. That was a TV showing maybe 25 years ago or more and I’ve wanted to revisit it ever since.

              I look forward to reading that thrillers list even more now that you’ve piqued my curiosity.


  6. I think I was born 30 years too late. When I think of all the crap they show on TV – over and over and over again. And we never see any of these great old movies. It’s a shame.


    • I know what you mean, although there are so many available one way or another these days that we ought to be grateful for that.

      The dearth of TV showings of lesser known vintage material does limit the potential for younger viewers to get casual exposure to these movies, and I think that is a shame. Growing up, I caught lots of obscure stuff on TV – films I’d be unlikely to have heard of and which need to be actively looked for nowadays – and it encouraged me to explore further.


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