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DON’T LOOK NOW

One of the greatest horror movies of the 1970s, and indeed of all time: a sexy, innovative and atmospheric depiction of psychic terror.

The Package
     This 1973 British production, adapted from a novella by Daphne du Maurier, is one of the masterworks of the sometimes-great Nicolas Roeg. It starred the onetime box office draws Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, and proved quite influential: Dario Argento and Danny Boyle both highly revere the film, which was all-but-remade by Lars Von Trier in ANTICHRIST, and Sutherland actually named one of his children Roeg after working on it.
     The film was also extremely controversial, with a lengthy and explicit sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that continues to be a point of debate (with ex-studio exec Peter Bart claiming he was present during the filming of the scene and that the sex was real, which Sutherland and producer Peter Katz hotly deny).
     Roeg attempted to match the brilliance of DON’T LOOK NOW in two similarly themed subsequent films, 1991’s COLD HEAVEN and 2007’s PUFFBALL, but without much success.

The Story
     The renowned UK-based art restorer John and his wife Laura are stationed in Venice, where John is restoring an old church. Both are traumatized by the death of their child, a young girl who drowned a year earlier while wearing a red parka--just as John spilled water on a slide depicting a person in red seated in a church.
     In Venice Laura is accosted by an old blind woman who claims to have psychically contacted Laura’s daughter in the afterlife. Laura faints but seems rejuvenated afterward, so much so that she and John have passionate sex--which turns out to be the last passionate moment they’ll ever share.
     Laura goes back to the psychic woman, who goes into a trance in which she warns that John’s life is in danger. John, meanwhile, spots a figure in a read coat who resembles their daughter in her final moments.
     Later that night John and Laura are awakened by a phone call informing them that their surviving son has been hurt in an accident. Laura catches an immediate flight back to England while John stays in Venice--where things quickly turn very dark.
     First John almost dies when a church scaffolding he’s standing on collapses. Next he witnesses a corpse being fished out of a canal, apparently the work of a local serial killer. While on a boat trip he spots a stony Laura dressed all in black sailing past him on another boat. Then of course there’s that mysterious red coated figure, who’s still running around Venice, and who John unwisely decides to chase into a church, where everything finally comes clear…

The Direction
     This is one of the few movies that actually outdoes its source novel, which was clever and diverting but lacked the mosaic-like fracturing of reality that characterizes this film (although it omits the novel’s immortal final line: “‘Oh God,’ he thought, “‘What a bloody silly way to die…’”). Nicolas Roeg accomplishes this through editing that freely juxtaposes past, present and future, a technique that seems entirely appropriate to a story about telekinesis and prophecy.
     Note the use of color by Roeg and cinematographer Anthony Richmond, which is forceful and complex. Red is utilized throughout (in the coat worn by the protagonists’ daughter, the spilled ink in the opening scene and the blood shed in the final one), functioning as both a symbolic visual touchstone and foreshadowing of (bad) things to come. Richmond’s stunningly atmospheric rendering of Venice is another highlight, presenting its tunnels and canals in gritty yet darkly ethereal fashion.
     Let’s not forget the film’s most (in)famous sequence, which remains one of the greatest-ever movie sex scenes. Unlike most every other non-hardcore sex scene I know, it truly gives one the feel of eavesdropping on an actual married couple having actual coitus. It’s marked by flash forwards to the participants getting dressed after the deed is done, a device very much in keeping with the overall style (although it was apparently done to appease the censors) that enhances the sense of prophecy suffusing the film.
     Another noteworthy directorial quirk is the paired imagery, exemplified by the pond outside John and Laura’s house mirrored in the canals of Venice, the protagonists’ lovemaking mirrored in the motions made by the psychic woman in her trance, a table overturned by Laura when she faints mirrored in the collapsed scaffolding that nearly kills John, and of the course the red coat worn by John and Laura’s daughter on the day of her death, mirrored in the red coated figure who may actually be the girl…or not.

 
Vital Statistics

DON’T LOOK NOW
Paramount Pictures

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Peter Katz
Screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
(Based on a novella by Daphne Du Maurier)
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Editing: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Giorgio Trestini, Leopoldo Trieste, David Tree, Ann Rye, Nicholas Salter, Sharon Williams, Bruno Cattaneo, Adelina Poerio

     

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