A PSYCHIC THRILLER.
What is it about Venice? Dirk Bogarde spent an entire film called Death in Venice (1971) on vacation in the disease-stricken city, staring at a boy he found beautiful. Luchino Visconti’s film had a haunting quality, and so does Nicolas Roeg’s thriller Don’t Look Now. Eerie and a little strange, both films portray the waterlogged city as a mysterious place, a separate universe where anything can happen. I guess I’ll have to go there one day and be thoroughly disappointed…
The film opens shockingly with John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) failing to save Christine, his little girl, from drowning. When we meet John and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) again, they’re in Venice where he is working on the restoration of a church. The couple is doing alright, but a meeting with two old women is unsettling to Laura. One of them, a blind psychic, tells the grieving mother that Christine wants her parents to know that she is fine but they need to leave Venice because her father is in danger.
When Laura tells John what just happened, he refuses to believe any of it. We learn that John also has the “gift”, but won’t recognize it. There are even times when he thinks he sees Christine in Venice, wearing the red raincoat she wore when she died, but he just won’t believe in ghosts. When Laura suddenly needs to go back home to England, John stays in Venice because of his work but soon realizes that he is indeed in danger.
Final sequence is a shocker
Death in Venice had a deadly disease strike the city, creating a scary undertone. Don’t Look Now does the same thing, but here it’s a serial killer that’s tormenting the city. We have a feeling that the killer will eventually grow in significance, but we have no idea how. The final sequence is indeed a shocker, incredibly tense, giving us one of those classic surprises in the history of cinema. But the film is perhaps best known for a sex scene that director Roeg allegedly felt was necessary to generate sympathy for the Sutherland-Christie couple. Erotic, intense, beautiful, original and very naked, it certainly makes us care for these two people who have survived the death of their child. The actors have a lot to do with it, of course, and they’re excellent.
Venice appears to be the third star of the movie and cinematographer Anthony Richmond captures her in her most desolate, raw mood. There is something odd about the place, and the filmmakers truly emphasize this feeling. Few scenes are scary in the traditional horror movie sense, but it’s unsettling to always expect Christine (or something even scarier than kids in horror movies) to appear behind the next corner.
The story is not dwarfed by the filmmakers’ penchant for effects. Alfred Hitchcock also built terrific thrillers on Daphne du Maurier stories. He must have chosen them because he knew they were strong and could easily be turned into nail-biting, cinematic experiences by anyone wise enough to treat them right. With this film, the director of Walkabout (1971) returned from Australia to show that Hitchcock wasn’t the only one who could do du Maurier justice.
Don’t Look Now 1973-Britain. 110 min. Color. Produced by Peter Katz. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant. Novel: Daphne du Maurier. Cinematography: Anthony Richmond. Music: Pino Donaggio. Cast: Donald Sutherland (John Baxter), Julie Christie (Laura Baxter), Hilary Mason (Heather), Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato.
BAFTA: Best Cinematography.
Last word: “After we’d finished the film, Daphne du Maurier asked to see it. I remember the producer telling me not to come along to the screening because I’d changed it so much. I said I hadn’t changed it – I’d changed some details, but not the heart of the piece. Anyway, I didn’t go along for some reason. Then a week or so later I got a very nice letter from du Maurier saying how much she’d enjoyed it.” (Roeg, The Telegraph)