“The one who’s blind. She’s the one that can see.”
“Don’t Look Now” (1973)
Among the most original and visually striking modern suspense films
By Michael Hadley
At the time of its release in December 1973, Don’t Look Now sharply divided critics and received a rather tepid response at the box office. Revisiting it now, the viewer cannot help but marvel at how forward looking the film was with its disregard for linear storytelling and unabashed reliance on flash-forwards, flash-backs and jump-cuts to tell a complicated story of human loss and supernatural phenomena. Set amid the twisty cul-de-sacs and canals of a decaying Venice, the story concerns an attractive married couple who struggle to move forward after the tragic drowning of their young daughter. No matter how many ambitious contemporary thrillers have appeared since Don’t Look Now, the film stands among the most original and visually striking modern suspense films.
Admittedly, the genre has become saturated over the years with commercially driven movies that are designed to scare the wits out of us. We’ve all jumped in our seats during similar movies that pivot perilously around troubled romantic relationships (think Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct or Jagged Edge). We’ve also been entranced by the clever sleight-of-hand that made supernaturally themed films like The Sixth Sense and The Others so riveting. But it’s challenging to think of many recent films that take us on a thrill ride and test our basic grasp of reality. Watching Don’t Look Now,It often feels as if we are being asked to set all logic aside and accept what cannot be seen, proven or understood as the only irrefutable truth.
You also have to search far and wide to find other thrillers that dissect a marriage to the same degree of intellectual complexity and erotic intensity that is on display here. And how many other screen couples have projected the raw feeling of sadness and loss that Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland do in this film? Although their explicit love scene garnered most of the early media attention, the emotional payoff comes from the toxic damage that grief inflicts on their marriage and divergent belief systems.
Don’t Look Now is truly a film in which nothing is quite what it seems, and just when you think the filmmakers are as confused as you are, they inject enough narrative momentum to hold you in your seat until its unsettling conclusion.
The film was based on a 1971 collection of short stories by Daphne du Maurier that was initially published in Britain under the title Not After Midnight. The collection was published in America by Doubleday with the title Don’t Look Now. The book contains several novella-length stories with different characters and themes that are similar in that they touch on the supernatural and strange events.
Du Maurier’s story differs from the filmed version in several respects. The Baxters are in Venice trying to recover from the death of their daughter Christine. In the book, it is stated that Christine died from meningitis. In the filmed version, the little girl, clad in a bright red plastic raincoat, drowns at the family home one gloomy afternoon.
In the short story, Laura and John joke about a couple of odd-looking identical twins eating in the same Venice restaurant as themselves. In the film, they are simply sisters. In the book, Laura states that she “felt faint” in the ladies room after the sisters talked to her about the dead Christine. The film, however, depicts Julie Christie as actually fainting when she returns to the table following her visit to the ladies room. Otherwise, the film is fairly faithful to the original story.
Du Maurier also wrote the novel Rebecca, which was adapted for stage and screen on several occasions and is generally regarded as her masterpiece. One of her strongest influences was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Her fascination with the Brontë family is also apparent in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, her biography of the troubled elder brother to the Brontë girls. Several of her other novels have also been adapted for the screen including Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, Hungry Hill and My Cousin Rachel. The Hitchcock film The Birds was based on a treatment of one of her short stories. Du Maurier often complained that the only film adaptations of her work that she liked were Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now . After seeing Don’t Look Now, du Maurier wrote a letter to Roeg congratulating him on making such a strong film from her story. – Source: Wikipedia
The Director: Nicolas Roeg began his professional career in 1947 as a film editor’s apprentice. He first came to attention as part of the second unit on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which contained his first really distinctive solo work. He went on to photograph films for such distinguished directors as François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), John Schlesinger (Far from the Madding Crowd ) and Richard Lester (Petulia) before his sensational directorial debut in 1970‘s Performance, for which he received co-directing credit with writer Donald Cammell. The film was intended to be a star vehicle for Mick Jagger and Warner Brothers executives were so horrified when they saw the final multi-layered kaleidoscope of sex, violence, and questions of identity that they delayed its release for two years. Roeg went to Australia in 1971 for his solo debut as director of the film Walkabout, which was also his last film as cinematographer. Throughout the next decade, he produced a world-class body of work including Don’t Look Now (1973); The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) with David Bowie; and 1980’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession starring his wife (at the time) Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel. – Sources: IMDB and Wikipedia
Nicolas Roeg on the central theme of Don’t Look Now: “The loss of a child is a terrible thing, maybe the very worst. And to see the one you love in grief is dreadful also. It splits many couples up because it is an impossible situation to deal with. One grief compounds the other. Someone has to step back and try to make everything move forward. Maybe that’s Baxter’s (Donald Sutherland) problem: it’s his love for his wife and his desperation to have the relationship survive that stops him from understanding. Maybe that is why, at the end, she has a triumphant look. She understands and she has survived.”
Source: Julie Christie: The Biography by Tim Ewhart and Stafford Hildred
Julie Christie: She won the 1965 Best Actress Oscar for her work in John Schlesinger’s Darling and that was followed by other critically acclaimed performances in Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451, Far From the Madding Crowd, Petulia and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It is important to note that Nicolas Roeg was the cinematographer on three of these films: Fahrenheit 451, Far From the Madding Crowd and Petulia.
By the time Christie agreed to star in Don’t Look Now, she was one of the most respected leading actresses of her generation. Although her offscreen romance with Warren Beatty grabbed a significant amount of media attention at the time, her impressive work in films far outshone anything the tabloids tried to exploit. In recent years, two of her best performances were in 1997’s Afterglow directed by Alan Rudolph and Sarah Polley’s quietly devastating drama Away From Her (2006), which gave Christie one of her richest roles to date. Her work in both films brought her Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award nominations.
Julie Christie on Donald Sutherland: “I simply loved working with Donald Sutherland. He is a fine actor. The only problem I had with him was that it was very hard to appear romantic when he was making me laugh all the time.” Source: Julie Christie: The Biography by Tim Ewhart and Stafford Hildred
Donald Sutherland: Canadian born Sutherland had recently enjoyed critical and box office success in Robert Altman’s Mash (1970) and Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971) opposite Jane Fonda. He received a 1974 BAFTA nomination as Best Actor for his performance in Don’t Look Now. He has also received multiple acting nominations over the years from BAFTA, the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe awards) and the Chicago Film Critics Association. In 1996, he won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Television Miniseries or a Special for his performance in Citizen X. He also received tremendous critical acclaim for his role as the compassionate, grieving father in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), which took Best Film honors at the Academy Awards that year. Sutherland received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in that film but he did not win. He continues to be active in mainstream films with prominent roles in Horrible Bosses (2011) and the upcoming Hunger Games (2012).
Donald Sutherland on Julie Christie: “Julie has such a wonderful film presence and fulfills everything I admire in a performer in that she, more specifically than almost anyone else, works for the director and recognizes that the film is created by the director in the way Moreau did for Malle.” – Source: IMDB
Critical Reaction Now and Then
Many believe that time and life experience help us appreciate works of art that elude our grasp when we first encounter them. Put another way, the prism we look through is often shaped by what we know and what is familiar. Such is the case with critical and popular appreciation for Don’t Look Now, which has shifted significantly over time. And what better barometer to confirm that than a recent poll that placed Don’t Look Now at the top of all British films?
In February 2011, the London Telegraph reported that Time Out magazine had named Don’t Look Now as the best British film of all time from a poll conducted by a panel of accomplished film directors, actors and critics, including Sam Mendes, Mike Leigh and Terence Davies, among others.
Reacting to this impressive honor, director Nicolas Roeg said: “After all this time, people see the film more clearly. When it came out, audiences were less used to it. That scene would’ve been like someone bursting out of a cupboard and shouting, ‘Boo!’
Dave Calhoun, film editor of Time Out, was quoted as saying: “This once-in-a-decade poll throws new light on the films which inspire our current actors, directors and writers. In the same week that the BAFTA winners are announced, and as the British film funding landscape remains in flux, now seems as good a time as ever to think about British cinema in the context of over 100 years.”
Top 10 British Films of All Time
1. Don’t Look Now (1973)
2. The Third Man (1949)
3. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
4. Kes (1969)
5. The Red Shoes (1948)
6. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
7. Performance (1970)
8. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
9. If… (1968)
10. Trainspotting (1996)
Source: The London Telegraph, February 9, 2011
Additionally, the British Film Institute ranked Don’t Look Now #8 on their list of the top 100 British Films, and The London Times ranked the film #18 on their list of 100 greatest films Below are excerpts from several reviews that reflect the polarized reactions among film critics:
Vincent Canby, The New York Times, December 10, 1973: “Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now,’ which opened yesterday at the Sutton Theater, is a fragile soap bubble of a horror film. It has a shiny surface that reflects all sorts of colors and moods, but after watching it for a while, you realize you’re looking not into it, but through it and out the other side. The bubble doesn’t burst, it slowly collapses, and you may feel, as I did, that you’ve been had.”
Roger Ebert, October 13, 2002: “The hero of ‘Don’t Look Now’ is a rational man who does not believe in psychics, omens or the afterlife. The film hammers down his skepticism and destroys him. It involves women who have an intuitive connection with the supernatural, and men who with their analytical minds, are trapped in denial–men like the architect, the bishop and the policeman, who try to puzzle out the events of the story. The architect’s wife, the blind woman and her sister try to warn them but cannot.”
A review by Damian Cannon: “Part of what makes Don’t Look Now special is its location, the fluidly atmospheric streets and canals of Venice. Under the watchful eye of Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond captures everything from the warm ambience of sunset to the shadowed creepiness of dank, subsiding corridors. As the story shifts past a variety of moods, these become refracted through Venice’s prism. One moment there’s hope and joy, the next danger and uncertainty. We appear to be gazing at the unchanged but, like the city, that’s an illusion. Roeg ensures that you never quite know whether to believe all that your eyes drink in, it may belong to the assumed context but it could easily be a sign from sometime else. Don’t Look Now keeps you off-balance.
Much of this discomfort stems from Graeme Clifford’s editing, though that barely begins to describe the warp of this particular film. Sounds fade in and out, magnified and brought forward, then diminished to a whisper. Pino Donaggio score twists and traps, echoing character emotion. Richmond shoots from inclined and skewed camera angles to heighten the tension, viewing scenes from obscured lines, almost as if to imply that someone is watching. Then, with hand-held camera, he sweeps around, enhancing John and Laura’s search for something, anything, a clue to make sense of it all. Unexpected cuts and fades slice through the story, connecting and separating themes and elements; a reflection blurs into a face, a mirror into a memory. Nothing is quite as it seems, as if the surface hides a whole other world, one governed by different rules.” – Movie Reviews UK 1999
Sources: IMDB And Wikipedia.
1974 BAFTA Film Awards
• Won: Best Cinematography Award – Anthony B. Richmond
• Nominated for Best Film
• Nominated for Best Actor – Donald Sutherland
• Nominated for Best Actress – Julie Christie
• Nominated for Best Direction – Nicolas Roeg
• Nominated for Best Film Editing – Grahame Clifford
• Nominated for Best Soundtrack – Rodney Holland; Peter Davies; and Bob Jones
1974 Edgar Allan Poe Awards
• Nominated for Best Motion Picture – Alan Scott and Chris Bryant
1975 USA Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
• Nominated for the Golden Scroll in the Best Horror Film category
Written and researched by Michael Hadley
Does Art Affect Reality? – Don’t Look Now
“The 1973 movie “Don’t Look Now” with Donald Sutherland is a masterpiece, a movie I personally could never forget and I can recall most of it, even though it has been 20 years since I’ve last watched it.
Up to only a few days ago I wasn’t aware that the movie is involved in a dramatic case of precognition. Whilst it is not unusual that art imitates life, there are some disturbing cases where life imitates art and “Don’t Look Now” is one of them.
In the movie, a couple are haunted by the spirit of their young child who had drowned in a pond outside their home. The mother of the child was portrayed by Julie Christie. The fictional plot became true in March 1979 for Jonathan and Lesley Heale, who were living at Julie Christie’s farmhouse in Wales. The film star was just visiting and shortly after Julie Christie leaves, Lesley Heale found her 22 month old son floating in a large duck pool near the house. She waded in and recovered him, just as the father in the film had done. The boy had drowned in just two feet of water.” – Ref: Does Art Affect Reality? – Don’t Look Now