Adapted from a play by Arthur Laurents and directed by David Lean, an American spinster vacations in Venice and has a romance with a married shopkeeper.
Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) takes a train from Paris to Venice and takes moving picitures. This is her first visit. From the crowded station she takes a boat. She meets a touring couple from Illinois, Mr. McIlhenny (MacDonald Parke) and Mrs. McIlhenny (Jane Rose). They are also going to the Pensione Fiorini. Jane films two emergency boats. She hires a man to carry her bags to the hotel. She has a room reserved and checks in. She likes the dining room and patio. She smuggled in bourbon and shares it with Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda). Jane says she met a girl who is looking for something magical. On the patio Jane and the McIlhennys meet the artist Eddie Yeager (Darren McGavin) and his wife Phyl Yeager (Mari Aldon). Signora Fiorini invites Jane to join her on a dinner invitation, but she says no and is left alone.
Jane walks and gives a little boy Mauro (Gaetano Autiero) some money for food. She hears church bells and hurries to the Piazza San Marco. She drinks at an outdoor table and films people and places. She notices a man looking at her and puts on dark glasses. She tries to call a waiter, and he helps her get his attention. Later she sits by the canal alone.
The next day Jane films statues in the square, and she buys food for the boy and gives him one cigarette before leaving him. She sees a red goblet and asks the price. Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) comes out and tells her it is from the 18th century. He suggests she take off her dark glasses. She buys it for 10,000 lira, and he is surprised she did not bargain. He persuades her to take it for 8,700 and wraps it for her. He says he might find another one and urges her to call again.
On the patio Jane writes a letter. She tells Phyl she is pretty, and Phyl goes off with Eddie. She asks to join them later and offers to buy drinks. Jane goes back to the outdoor table. Renato says, “Good evening” but then walks away.
During siesta time the street is quiet. The boy asks if she wants a gondola. She asks him to take her to the Ponte St. Barnaba. She goes in the shop again and comes out. She films the shop, and backing up she falls into the canal as the boy grabs her camera. She swims to the steps, and a crowd gathers. She says she is all right, and she asks Mauro to take her home.
After she changes, she finds Renato is there. She says he played hooky. She asks him why he came to see her. He reviews their three meetings and notes she came back to his shop. She denies she had any other reason for going there. He says they are simpatica. They sit down, and he says she affects him. He says they saw each other and liked each other. The McIlhennys come in from shopping, and Jane introduces them to Renato. Mrs. Mcllhenny shows Jane a similar goblet, and they bought a set. She calls him Cookie for telling her it was from the 18th century, but he insists it is. He invites her to go out with him and suggests she relax and take a deep breath.
In the evening they sit at a table and listen to an orchestra playing an overture by Rossini. Renato tells Jane that she surprises him. They drink a toast to many surprises. He buys her a gardenia that she chooses. She tells how a boy could not afford to buy her one. He says everything happens sooner or later, and he suggests they take a walk. He shows her where he lives. She drops her gardenia in the canal, and he is not able to reach it as it floats by. He takes her home and kisses her. She asks why he did that, and he kisses her again. She whispers, “I love you,” runs off, and says, “Tomorrow.”
In the morning Mauro tries to sell her a watch. She says she has an appointment and gets her hair done. She buys red shoes and a black evening dress. She sits at the table, and Vito Rossi (Jeremy Spenser) gives her a message that Renato will be late. She asks him about working for his father. She tells him she is leaving. Jane drinks at a bar with Phyl, and they are both upset. Jane goes back and hears a couple talking on the patio. She gets angry at Mauro, and Renato comes to his defense. He says she is shocked. She is angry and asks him why he did not tell her he was married. He says he and his wife do not live together. He says she is looking for someone young, rich, and single, but he is none of those things. He says she is hungry. She says it is not the way she thought it would be. He kisses her and says she does it well. She says she wants to walk alone, and he follows her. He invites her for a drink or food, and she says no. She says this is ridiculous, and he agrees.
At a table a man shows them moving toys, and Jane laughs. She and Renato dance to various songs. He sings along with one. From a balcony they watch fireworks and kiss. She leaves a red shoe on the balcony. At dawn they walk in the empty square. She takes a gondola, and they wave goodbye.
The next day Jane and Renato ride in a speed boat to an island “where the rainbow fell.” At sunset they lay on a meadow by the sea and kiss. She asks him to take her to see the lace-making.
They meet again at the table, and he admits he asked the orchestra to play the song. He asks what she is thinking. She was remembering when she first saw him. She says she will never forget these moments. He thinks she is going to surprise him again. They walk, and she tells him she is leaving on a train in two hours. He asks what he has done and wonders if he made her unhappy. She says she is happy. He says he loves her and will always love her. She says she has always stayed at parties too long. He asks her to stay longer. He embraces her, and she asks him to help her. She asks to go by herself, and he asks her not to go. They kiss, and she leaves in a gondola.
Jane boards the train and sees Mauro, who shakes her hand. He gives her a pen as a gift and runs off. She looks around and gets on the train. She looks out the window. As the train pulls out, she sees Renato running to her with a gift. He is unable to reach her and shows her a gardenia. She waves.
This romantic drama portrays a shy and sensitive woman with little romantic experience who dares to have a fling with an Italian. The gardenia and her leaving on the train symbolizes that she is just out of reach for him. Yet somehow there is a sad love in that effort to reach out to another.