Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Look Now (1973)

Being Film #8 in Hail Horror 5. Thanks to Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder and Captain Blake of The October People for the recommendation

Cut away the non-linear structure, the running visual cues and kinetic editing, and DON'T LOOK NOW would probably still be a good, if fairly predictable movie.  But fortunately for us we don't have to do that, and the fact is that Nicolas Roeg in only his second feature as a director has crafted a masterpiece of mood and tone, and DON'T LOOK NOW stands as an achievement of the presentation of pure dread, and a stunning example of how a director can directly engage the audience in his vision.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as John and Laura Baxter, a couple who in the opening of the film tragically lose their young daughter in a drowning accident.  The sequence, cutting back and forth between the Baxters calmly working in their cottage and their young daughter Christine playing outside near a lake is a superb lesson in film making.  Christine's bright red raincoat is shot reflecting in the water as she runs outside, and the image of water, as well as the color red serve as markers throughout the film. In fact, the actual shot is doubled later in the film to wonderful effect.  Actions in the house are mirrored outside, and in some instances are perfectly edited to be a continuous motion between the two, such as a ball tossed in the air cutting to John tossing a pack of cigarettes to Laura.  A quick shot of Laura covering her mouth, instantly cutting to Christine doing the same.  A dropped ball echoes a glass dropping, cutting John's thumb (which echoes his young son's cut finger outside) causing blood to smear across a slide of a church window, specifically on the image of a red hooded person sitting in a pew.  The blood slowly moves across the slide, and it's then that John gets a sense that something's not right outside.

I could go on and on just analyzing the opening of this film.  It sets up everything we can expect from Roeg throughout the rest of the film.  An indeterminate amount of time later the setting shifts to Venice, which captures the crumbling state of affairs between John and Laura.  I've never seen Venice look more depressed and decayed on film.  John is restoring an old church, trying to escape from the death of his daughter in his work.  In a restaurant they come across two older women, sisters, one of whom is psychic and tells Laura that she can see young Christine sitting right next to them, happy but trying to tell them them something.  Laura collapses, and awakens later finally at ease with events, ready to believe the best and resume their lives.  John, however, is strictly rational, refusing to buy into anything other the solid reality of the walls and windows he fights so hard to bring back from their own state of decay.

When Laura learns that Chrstine's message is actually a warning to leave Venice before it's too late, and that the message is for John, who whether he wishes to believe it or not is capable of some psychic insight himself, DON'T LOOK NOW moves with a dreadful pace to its horrible and inevitable end.  But the manner in which it does so is so remarkable, and so visible to the audience that Roeg elevates the story to classic status.  He's ably assisted by Sutherland and Christie, who turn in one of the most believable portraits of marriage I've seen on film.  So much has been said of the pivotal love-making scene, cutting between the unbridled intimacy of the act itself and the distant dressing afterward, but beyond that what makes John and Laura's relationship so believable is in the little things: the constant interruptions in each other's conversations that never escalate into arguments but rather feel like this is how they've always talked.  The small touches and brushes into one another on the bed before the lovemaking, in the restaurant, and the jogging steps John takes as he runs to touch Laura's hand one last time before her boat leaves.  In a film surrounded by so many odd supporting characters (the sisters, the supremely odd police chief) John and Laura are utterly grounded in reality, and it makes the fantastic events that occur all the more tragic.

The last thought I wanted to get out about DON'T LOOK NOW is how deliberate Roeg's direction is.  Typically in a horror movie the directions a film takes align up with the perspective of the main character.  You the audience learn something because the main character is learning something.  Roeg does the exact opposite in DON'T LOOK NOW - he uses dissolves, flash-backs, genius editing and color to explicitly alert you - not John - to what's going on in the film.  In one particular set-piece John is matching a newly cut tile to see how it matches against the original tiles for a mosaic high on a church wall.  He stands on a rickety scaffold, and the camera constantly cuts back and forth from sets of eyes: on the mosaic, on pictures aligning a sheet of glass, and all of this cuts back to the cataract eyes of the psychic sister who heard the warnings to leave Venice before it was too late.  Roeg doesn't rub your nose in it; rather, he very purposefully presents his cues and guides you through to the climax of the film.  It's an incredibly assured job (not surprising considering some of his past work with David Lean and Roger Corman), and indicative of the visual themes he would continue to pursue in films like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and BAD TIMING.

DON'T LOOK NOW is a modern horror classic, not because it's particularly horrific or frightening (although in its dreadful way it is both of these things), but because of its maturity, a film firmly grounded in genre that isn't afraid to be art as well.


  1. Okay, now that you saw this masterpiece, I don't even want to comment on it until you find a way to see Paul Schrader's THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS. It's hard to find, but once you see it you'll get why I said this.

  2. Fine review of this supremely eerie bit of masterful filmmaking, Chris. Thanks for this.

  3. one of the best films of all time! :)