Trivia Renato Scarpa who plays inspector Longhi didn't speak any English. He just read the lines he'd been given without knowing what they meant, which added to the sinister quality of his character.
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Don't Look Now (1973)
1st Nov 04
When John and Laura Baxter’s daughter Christine tragically drowns on their English country estate, the grief-stricken couple flee to Venice in an effort to salvage what is left of their strained relationship. However, their attempts to forget the horrific incident are hampered somewhat when they encounter a peculiar clairvoyant who professes to have seen their deceased daughter. This revelation opens up old wounds, propelling the mournful couple into a dangerous world where the boundaries between reality and fantasy become increasingly distorted. John Baxter’s relentless pursuit of Christine’s ghost leads him on a journey through the deserted alleyways of a winter-ravaged city, which spirals out of control towards a terrifying and gruesome finale.
Based on the chilling short story by Daphne du Maurier, the 1973 adaptation by Nicholas Roeg is one of the few horror films able to transcend all genre boundaries and expectations. Lauded by audiences and critics alike, Don’t Look Now regularly features in the top ten movie magazine polls, and was recently voted 8th in the BFI’s list of favourite British films of the 20th century.
The film opens with perhaps one of the most traumatic scenes in recent cinematic history, as we witness the drowning of young Christine Baxter and the absolute terror in the eyes of her father (Sutherland) as he pulls her lifeless body from the lake. This sequence shot by cinematographer Anthony Richmond using a hand-held camera, captures the utter devastation and hopelessness of every parent’s worst nightmare, and serves as the backbone for the entire film. From this point onward every thought and action of the two lead characters is intrinsically linked to this brief moment in time, setting them on a course toward self-destruction in an attempt to absolve themselves of the immeasurable guilt they feel.
The bleak Venetian backdrop provided Roeg with a readymade ghost town in which his characters could lose themselves time and again. The dark empty alleyways and labyrinthine tunnels, which John Baxter incessantly treads, are claustrophobic and creepy, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout, yet never fully revealing what is around the next corner. As the city becomes gripped by fear in the wake of a series of gruesome murders, you find yourself being pulled into John Baxter’s nightmare, as he frantically hunts down a mysterious figure dressed in red.
The fractured narrative of the film is Roeg’s trademark, encouraging you to watch the story unfold from the perspective of his characters. He effortlessly cuts from the present to the past in a series of revealing and often disturbing flashbacks, then just as quickly jumps to the future, all the while hinting at the horrors that may lie in store for the increasingly distraught and confused couple. Further clues of their eventual fate are mooted through the use of thematic symbols such as the reoccurring images of water and shattered glass. The empty streets and deserted dining rooms accentuate the loneliness felt by the two lead characters as they slowly drift further apart at a time when they need each other more than ever. The sudden flashes of red as omens of impending doom are extremely effective against a backdrop that is intentionally bland, save for the vivid raincoat worn by Christine Baxter as she drowns and the clothing of the peculiar, yet alluring shape in the night.
The Baxter’s association with the two strange English women – one of which is the blind clairvoyant who claims to have seen Christine – is also a key ingredient to the film’s success. Her portentous messages from beyond the grave alert the couple to the horrifying dangers which may lie ahead, though instead of heeding these warnings they only serve to spur Sutherland’s character on in his desperate quest to find Christine, who he believes may still be alive.
Above all though, it is the relationship between John and Laura Baxter which is the film’s central focus throughout, and the gradual disintegration of their relationship amidst a haze of grief. What makes this film all the more terrifying is its realism, and this is due in no small part to the undeniable chemistry between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. As a couple struggling to come to terms with the loss of a child they are wholly believable, their scenes together so personal that you feel you’re intruding upon their misery simply by watching. This is especially true of the now legendary sex scene in which we witness John and Laura making love for the first time since the accident. This emotionally charged sequence shot once again using a hand-held camera is both deeply erotic and heartrendingly tender; the passion heightened by Pino Donaggio’s harrowing musical score, which echoes in the background.
As the film draws to a close John Baxter’s mental state dissolves rapidly, and the film takes on an altogether more disturbing tone. Searching high and low for his lost daughter the tension slowly builds to a crescendo before the mystery rapidly uncoils, and in a brief moment of clarity John Baxter is finally able to comprehend the horrifying reality. As endings go this has to be one of the most shocking and brutal you are likely to see, and one that will stick with you long after the lights go up.
Don’t Look Now is without question a modern classic, and one of the most terrifying horror stories ever committed to film. As well as being a gripping tale of mystery and suspense, it is also a detailed study of grief, and can at times be emotionally taxing. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are astounding in the two lead roles, showcasing their considerable acting talents by transforming their characters from mere words on a page into real, believable people who we can immediately sympathise with. The tension created in the opening scene never lets up at any point during the 106 minute running time as the chilling saga creeps towards its dramatic and bloody conclusion, leaving you utterly drained at the finish. Poignant yet shocking, Don’t Look Now is British film making at its finest and the masterpiece for which Nicholas Roeg will undoubtedly be remembered.
Versions The sex scene was trimmed slightly in the US to achieve an R rating.