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Don’t Look Now

*****
1974

‘…one of cinema’s great puzzle-boxes…’

My third selection from the Studiocanal streaming catalogue is a film that I’ve regularly returned to, ‘a gift and a curse’, as one of the lines of dialogue suggests. A grieving couple encounter two sisters, one a sightless psychic, in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story. It’s a mystery unlike any other; highly influential, it’s regularly picked apart for its style, the use of the colour red, the photography of Venice in winter, the famous sex scene, the lush Pino Donaggio score, the abrupt, shocking ending.

I saw this on its first tv screening, a Sunday late-night slot on BBC 2 during the festive season in 1979; Dec 30th, 10.50pm to be exact. I expected some kind of scary movie, but Don’t Look Now dared to be something else, something deeper, primal and more unsettling. And yet viewing Roeg’s film in different formats over the years suggested that some investigation was in order. I visited Venice, tracing the locations and even running into Donald Sutherland on the Lido, in ruddy good health and something of a contrast to the way this film leaves him.

The baroque beauty of Venice is a deliberate counterpoint; the taboo subject of the death of a child is hard material for any film to cover, and yet Roeg, working from a script by Allan Scott (The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Queen’s Gambit) and Chris Bryant, chooses to set his entire film within adult grief. After their daughter’s death, John Baxter (Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Christie) are in Venice while he restores a church. These houses were built for God, but ‘God doesn’t care about them’ says the despondent priest who is watching over his painstaking restoration of a mosaic, a work of art that reflects a faith that Baxter doesn’t share. It’s Baxter who first senses that his daughter is in danger from drowning, yet Baxter doesn’t seem to sense that the red rain-coated figure he pursues through the darkened Venetian streets is not his daughter. On a second viewing, there is some foreshadowing that a maniacal killer is on the loose, but on a first viewing John’s sudden death is a shock to the system.

Even on a first, unexpected viewing, Don’t Look Now gets its big idea across; Baxter spotting his wife in Venice, at a time he knows she’s in England visiting their injured son, is something that neither he nor we immediately recognise as a premonition. It’s only when death finally catches up with Baxter, or perhaps the other way around, that things become clear. The sinister-seeming psychics see the real danger, but are unable to change the course of fate and their warnings go unheeded in the finale. Centuries old questions of fate and predestination apply, but the answers the film gives only affirm the spiritual in the face of obscene violence.

Don’t Look Now was the UK’s second most popular film of 1974 in the UK, a worthy second to box office champ Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Perhaps the sex did have something to do with it, but shock is surely the over-riding emotion that a first time viewer experiences. The mystery is not solved, any theorised solution creates far more questions than it answers, the inquiring die in a pool of their own blood. Don’t Look Now is one of cinema’s great puzzle-boxes, a scary movie yes, but the real horror is in the suggestion that we’re all utterly powerless in the hands of fate.

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  1. Not just a good horror film but a remarkable piece of filmmaking. From calculated matchcuts to claustrophobic closeups, to ominous sound production, Director Nicolas Roeg takes Daphne du Maurier’s short story to a whole new level. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, facial expressions tell the entire story. Just add the rain and the color red, and you’re in for a horrifically real experience. Love it!

    • Is the correct answer! I’m very defensive about this film, I just think it’s one of these perfect movies, the atmosphere is unique!

  2. I like that I felt very immersed in the world of this film. The decayed beauty of Venice is an apt location for a man lost in grief trying to rebuild himself. Its quite misty and is like a maze, they really convey that geography well.

    I think the film is part of a subset of poetical English filmmaking that I wish there was more of.

    Also there’s quite a strong sense of conspiracy in the film too, right? Anthony Minghella I think took a lot from this film for The Talented Mr Ripley, all is not well in beautiful Italy.

    And that ending… wow, love it.

    • I think you’re right about Minghella, and yes, there’s a poetic feel that’s largely missing from film-making generally outside the art house. It’s an inspired use of Venice, and not the bits that tourists see…something dark and dank, boats bobbing in inky black water…

  3. Superb film. knocked out by it at the time, misdirection a key, and what seems a couple managing to hold themselves together is a depiction of them coming apart. A visual delight. Plus it was released in a double bill with The Wicker Man in the UK. you could hardly imagine a better pairing.

    • Ah, you beat me to it. I saw the double bill at the Odeon High St Kensington , January 4, 1974. I seem to remember that The Wicker Man was cut? I didn’t really appreciate that film until much later screenings. I’ve just found some contemporary newspaper reviews, one of which discusses The Wicker Man at some length – rare coverage of a second feature. The same report suggests that the Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland bedroom scene in Don’t Look Now was cut in the US. Now it is considered a masterpiece of editing, performance and direction.

      • I’m not providing any firm evidence, but isn’t the original cut of the Wicker Man meant to be buried under the M3 motorway overpass? Either way, these two films are a perfect fit for a double-bill, stolen children and so on…

      • One of the great double bills. I think you’re right about both films being cut. Don’t Look was shown solo when it first opened and teamed up with The Wicker Man a few weeks alter so I am assuming it was given press screenings. It would be a fabulous double bill if they played it now.

        • Sight and Sound, October 2013 carries a long article about The Wicker Man by Vic Pratt explaining the various versions up to the point when a BFI DVD/Blu-ray disc was published following the film premiere of the new version with Robin Hardy in attendance. The double bill came about because British Lion, which was set to release both films, was taken over by EMI whose executives thought The Wicker Man was impossible to to market. They cut it and didn’t press screen it before putting out the double bill. As far as I can make out, Don’t Look Now was solo for the first six weeks (?) in the main Odeon sites in the West End and then the double bill started with the circuit release. Presumably British Lion had a deal with Rank before the EMI takeover. btw I had forgotten that Don’t Look Now was actually an Italian co-production.

    • I concur…though review was perceptive, actors awesome, and scenery had proper scary necropolis atmosphere, I don’t like movies whose purpose is to confuse and befuddle without a proper payoff. Novel was better; would have benefitted from editing and perhaps restoring deleted lines/scenes? I recall watching it long ago and being annoyed. Nope.

      • The toughness of the crowd grows…this is a real mystery film, it absolutely does not explain itself, and any theories tend towards the absurd. But if a million movies reveal and punish the killer before the lights come up, isn’t there room for one that keeps the lights off? I dare you to rewatch, there’s a secret world hidden here…

  4. I was in my early teens when I saw it for the first time, so the sex scenes shocked more than the horror stuff. Anyhow, the film grows in my estimation each time I watch it.

    • Agreed, you see more every time, I must have seen it a dozen times since my first viewing, but it always hits hard.

    • Alternative titles

      Don’t Even Think About It
      Don’t Bother
      Don’t Even Read This Review

  5. I remember the ending of this really messing me up as a kid.

    I was visited Venice.

    Isn’t there some movie about Scottish witches out today you’re supposed to be on? Letting down the home team . . .

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