Friday, 7 October 2011

Don't Look Now (1973)

Country: UK/ITALY

For me one of the most lamentable aspects of theatrical distribution was the abolition of the double bill. It was common practice at one time for cinemas to offer support for the feature presentation, and try as I might, my own efforts at engineering double bills at the local multiplex often end in failure. The best I have managed was a double bill of Land of the Dead (2005) and A History of Violence (2005)…no prizes for guessing which was the ‘B’ feature! The double bill gave patrons the feeling they were having a proper night out, and also represented value for money. It was probably this latter point which heralded the death knell for this form of distribution. Far be it from cinema chains to actually give the customer a good deal. Of all the double bills I’ve come across in the history books surely the most mind bending was Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man (1973). After the devastation of seeing Sgt. Howie burned to a crisp by Christopher Lee‘s pagan islanders, audiences would then experience the devastation of seeing Donald Sutherland murdered by a razor wielding dwarf in the passageways of Venice. Both films were distributed in the UK by British Lion, both films shared an interest in intricate plot details, both films fore grounded their settings and used their locations metaphorically, both films placed notable attention on character development, both became cult favourites, and at the time both were totally overshadowed by the self indulgent pretensions of William Friedkin’s bloated and banal The Exorcist (1973).

To be fair to ego maniac Friedkin’s masturbatory tribute to Italian art cinema the major problem for Don’t Look Now was the inability of the distributor to successfully market the film. In the US the film had the weight of Paramount behind it, but it seems that audiences were not quite ready for what the tagline promised was a ‘psychic thriller’. The one thing that was assured by the presence of Nicolas Roeg however was that the film would at least look impressive. Don’t Look Now overflows with one striking image after another. The compositions are painterly, with a depth and dimension most unusual for a genre production. Roeg was always able to draw on his career as a cinematographer, and no doubt he and DOP Anthony Richmond worked very closely on the films rich visual palette. This includes the symbolic recurrence of the colour red, which is given added poignancy and prominence by the dull colours it is contrasted with. When the Baxter’s daughter Christine fatally drowns in a dank and reedy pond the image achieves a greater impact by the autumnal browns and greens that surround her floating corpse. A parallel (there are so many in this film) is offered by the dull washed out masonry of Venice which is shattered by the briefest glimpse of a red coated figure. In the opening sequence the screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant sets up the theme of psychic premonitions. But it is the peculiar editing which makes it so disorientating. Time does not follow a linear path, but has a fluidity that we cannot trust, and is punctuated by flash forwards that only gradually start to make sense as we progress through the maze like narrative.

The contrast between the Baxter’s roaming country estate in Hertfordshire and the cloistered environs of Venice couldn’t be more pronounced. John Baxter is in the city to restore an old church, and this allows the filmmakers the opportunity to expose the weird and wonderful architecture of this eerie space. Whilst Roeg’s camera prowls the waterways and explores the labyrinthine streets, the claustrophobic landscape of Venice becomes a metaphor for the psychic experience and the jigsaw puzzle like nature of the plot. When Laura (Julie Christie) and John explore the streets, they often find themselves doubling back on themselves, with familiar locations suddenly become unfamiliar due to one wrong turn. Venice becomes a physical manifestation of Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and adds further pressure to the Baxter’s fragmenting relationship. Much of tension is derived from Laura’s visitations to a pair of old women, one of whom is psychic and has seen a vision of their dead daughter. John’s revulsion at these two women is entirely motivated by his fear that they will recognise his own latent psychic ability and force him to face up to it. His fear also contributes to an exaggerated rationalism that in less gifted hands could become highly irritating. But curly haired Sutherland is pure charisma here, and puts in arguably a career best performance. The hypnotic and dreamlike nature of Don’t Look Now on occasion shifts sharply into the realm of the banal. The rightfully famous sequence which cross cuts between the Baxter’s making love and getting read to go out is a moment that is both mechanical and perfunctory and highly cathartic

From a generic point of view the film trades on the conventions of the Italian giallo. It has more than a passing resemblance to Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (1972), but ultimately it has a formal eloquence and sophistication that goes far beyond that popular Italian cycle. Few films possess such an ominous sense of dread, but Don’t Look Now is able to do this because a series of clues are scattered throughout. The cumulative effect of which is apprehension and fear. The murders that are occurring concomitant to the Baxter’s personal struggles are for the large part an irrelevancy. The filmmakers deserve much credit for avoiding the obvious temptation to enter lurid exploitation detail. Having surveyed the full spectrum of British horror during my extensive researches I’m convinced that Don’t Look Now exists in the very highest echelon of the genre. This was Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece and he would spend the rest of his career trying to emulate the elusive brilliance of this startling and beautiful film.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Good job, Shaun. The ending of this always makes me wince, and is a real contrast to the usual instant death throat slitting. I must get the blu-ray, if only to see that red coat in HD.

  2. Cheers Rich - Yeah I have the Optimum blu-ray and its a decent presentation. Not quite up there with Optimum's outstanding blu-ray of CROSS OF IRON. But I consider DON'T LOOK NOW an essential purchase.

  3. It's a real shame that there is yet to be a definitive release of this title on home video. The terrible audio issues that plagued the Optimum DVD release have been addressed for the BD, but there is hot debate about the quality of the BD image itself...

    Your description of Friedkin's 'The Exorcist' is interesting, Shaun - as I know some who would deem Roeg's work to be another example of cinematic pretension rooted in (critically despised) popular genres. Certainly, 'Don't Look Now' is far more challenging for audiences, and I don't think I really found my way into it until a third or fourth viewing.

    Your anecdote about double bills was fascinating. 'The Wicker Man' and 'Don't Look Now' together for a night's entertainment? That's one hell of a double bill, indeed - and shows how distributors weren't concerned with counterprogramming their doubles as they might well have been in the past.

  4. Good to hear from you Johnny!

    I think the debate around the BD image is justified. Even I can recognise that there are far more impressive HD upgrades than DON'T LOOK NOW on the market (and I find it difficult at times to tell the different between DVD and BD). Optimum themselves have done better work on older titles such as the aforementioned CROSS OF IRON and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. The one thing I will say in its defence though, is that while not definitive, it is the best presentation of the film available at the moment.

    Of course you're right to make similar claims about Roeg as I did about Friedkin. The only difference is I don't like THE EXORCIST and I do like DON'T LOOK NOW...sometimes that's all it comes down too.

    I think the double bill of THE WICKER MAN/DON'T LOOK NOW may well have come about simply because the UK distributor British Lion didn't have a clue what to do with either film. I think I'd have been traumatised after that evenings viewing!

  5. Wicker Man and Dont Look Now, back to back, one after another, holy! What a double whammy of a double bill!

    Totally agree with you on this movies feeling of something being off kilter, or not quite right. The non linear fashion in which the tale unravels helps.

    This film reminds me of a time when serious horror films were made, you dont really see films like this anymore. Now every relies so heavily on special effects and silliness. This one was deadly serious, something that caracterizes horror/suspense films from the 70's. I miss that time when horror was treated this way. There's a bunch of films from this era that can be mentioned that are the same way, with that deadly serious vibe...Audrey Rose, Wolfen, and The Changeling for example.

  6. If you take a look at my Labels on the sidebar Franco, you'll notice that the decade that is outright leader is the 1970's. The 1960's and 1970's seem to be the decades that I persistently return to on these pages, so I'm totally with you on your view of the horror/suspense films from this period. You mention three interesting films there...I reviewed THE CHANGELING last year, and my view when watching it was that it was overrated. But I still enjoyed it. Likewise I enjoyed AUDREY ROSE and THE WOLFEN, but at the same time there is something missing from both films...a sense of energy, life and dynamism. They certainly lack the inspiration that Nicolas Roeg and his colleagues clearly had when making DON'T LOOK NOW.

  7. Loved your review of this classic film that I myself only say recently (shame on me since I consider myself a 70's horror connoisseur).
    But what really caught my attention were you excellent comments regarding the late and lamented double bill or double feature. I'm old enough to have enjoyed many double bills during my childhood and teen years and it was one thing I took for granted and thought that was it would be forever - oh, the naiveté of youth!

  8. Thanks for the kind words Luis, I very much appreciate it. There was an excellent article in a fairly recent addition of SIGHT AND SOUND which explored the double bill. I might do an article myself on the subject, it's an area worthy of research I feel. Unfortunately the double bill was an ancient history when I became a cinema goer in the late 1980's. I'd have very much liked to have experienced one. Instead I constructed my own, but it was always totally reliant on trying to fit two complimentary films around the screening times...very difficult to do!


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