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Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is clearly a superior film, but I can't make myself respond to it as others have. I don't see it as a particularly engaging thriller or even as a very good story. To me Roeg's fragmented, fractured editorial style, that works wonders in most all of his pictures, doesn't function well here, as it can't hide what are generic images from currently in-vogue horror films. Don't Look Now isn't normally compared with giallo slasher pictures. It comes off as too visually sophisticated, plus it has all the earmarks of front-rank, big star auteur filmmaking. David Thompson says that it's now considered one of the best English films ever, which to me seems unbelievable. Everything about Don't Look Now that's not a psychological horror tale is just superb, with Roeg at his very best. The supernatural / coincidence / cosmic fate theme just isn't that special. "Nothing is as it seems?" So what else is new?
Note - after several paragraphs of griping, this review does turn to an appreciation of Don't Look Now's better qualities.
Architectural restorer John Baxter and his wife Laura (Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie) are in Venice while he's working on a facelift for an ancient church. Their marriage is just beginning to find its way beyond a recent tragedy, the accidental death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams). John is helpless when Laura comes under the influence of a pair of elderly English sisters. The blind sister is a psychic, and advises Laura that Christine is happy and secure. John is worried that the association will disturb Laura once again, but he's having his own strange experiences, in the form of a small hooded figure in a shiny red raincoat that keeps popping up in the maze-like Venice walkways. The red raincoat seems connected to Christine, through a film transparency of a church John was studying when the accident occurred -- in the photo was a similar red-hooded figure.
Recall if you will a Dario Argento murder thriller in bright designer colors, with fetishistic cinematography highlighting reflective surfaces, drops of water on patent leather and vinyl, and bright, shiny knives and razors. Argento's movie might have four or six random, opportunistic set piece killings, and one or two of the victims might be minor characters on screen just long enough to be killed. Take one of these victims, embellish his story with a complex pattern of coincidences and echoing visual themes, and you have the gist of Don't Look Now. We're told that Alfred Hitchcock described movies like this one as "pure cinema", by which he meant the visuals are not driven by the narrative but by the visuals themselves.
With his constantly clashing images, Nicholas Roeg is the king of non-linear associative cutting; the Cuisinart editing style in his 'straight' dramas (Bad Timing) achieves very special ends. The problem is that anybody conversant with horror films knows that flash cuts to emphasize visual 'rhymes' and thematic connections are a given. In a disc extra, an interviewee waxes creative because he inserted an image of the laughing psychic into a (brilliant) sequence in which John almost falls to his death from a collapsing scaffolding in the church. Maybe in 1927 the effect would be subliminal, but by 1973 William Friedkin was inserting two or three frame flash cuts into The Exorcist to achieve this end. When I see the blind lady laughing, I feel the editor or director muddying the water with association overload. The flashes might be psychological, in which case John's mind, at the moment of jeopardy, thinks that the blind psychic is somehow willing his accident. Or we might fall into the, "woooo, it's all a supernatural conspiracy" mode, in which case nothing is accidental or random. The accident, the photo, the hooded figure, the presence of a serial killer and even the psychic sisters are all part of a pre-ordained scheme which will wipe out two of our characters and leave the third contemplating a reunion in the afterlife.
The film's thriller aspect seems ordinary to me. If it's psychological, it is pretty foggy. John's lucid vision of a future reality -- the funeral boat -- would seem not to support the psychological interpretation. If it's supernatural, the movie holds less interest. What's the difference between the random terrible occurrences in life and fated, perhaps evil, horrors? John and Laura can do nothing and passively succumb. More importantly, there's no point in paying particular attention because there's no 'solution' to be perceived.
The pleasure then has to be in the flow of imagery and the tension it raises, and of course Don't Look Now handles this very well. But I don't see Alfred Hitchcock looking upon it favorably, as one of the interviewees suggests. As I read Hitchcock's preferences, the man liked everything in movies to be organized and efficient. I think Hitchcock would describe Roeg as a "complicator", when he preferred movies by "simplifiers".
I suppose that I'd do Don't Look Now better justice by 'going with the flow' and not analyzing every edit. Pehaps I'm just sensitive to What Cuts Do, what happens when non-sequential content crashes together on a screen. Roeg's film succeeds marvelously in its human content, where we see a relationship between living and breathing people that seems real, happening in the here and now. That's unusual, especially in shows with movie stars. As if they were a real married couple, John and Laura interact while he works, eating at restaurants and just puttering around their hotel room. It's difficult to believe that anything we see is scripted. He's half-dressed, or walks around naked; she fusses with this and that, toying with her hair and clothing as might any woman assembling herself to go out in public.
I think more people came to see the film's sex scene than cared about the horror mystery. Think on that: if there were no horror iconography, and the show were just about the desultory efforts of a couple to be pleasant and let a bad experience slip away, Don't Look Now might resemble a film by Rossellini or Visconti. We sometimes try not to share recent bad experiences with others to avoid recycling bad feelings; John and Laura's tender relationship plays like that. When they make love it's an automatic thing they've done many times, but also a meaningful experience. I know the buzz is wondering if the actors really do make it in the movie. I'm equally impressed by the way John and Laura (or Donald and Julie) stroll through the hotel lobby on their way to eat. The relaxed way they cling to each other, you know what they've just been doing. Roeg has expressed a life reality that films almost never get right -- movie sex scenes always have 'themes', or express dramatic differences, whereas in real life people sometimes just Do It.
Nobody in the '70s tops Nicholas Roeg for moody atmosphere. He takes full advantage of the Venice location with its confusing layout of damp stone walkways. John examines the foundation of the church, and we're told that every building in the place is settling deeper, shifting this way and that or crumbling in pieces. Sound is also deceptive in the hollow and echo-y spaces; any conversation has a gothic quality and any unidentifiable noise could be a threat.
The acting is fine even if the rest of the script adheres to the edict that supporting players must be Strange. Besides the creepy sisters, the Bishop (Masssimo Serato) behaves like a guilty man hiding something, and even the hotelier (Leopoldo Trieste) is one of those foreigners who only pretends to understand one's questions. The policeman is downright spooky -- he calmly listens to John, as if he knows they're all in Limbo and trying to do anything real is pointless.
The color red is carefully portioned out in this film, assigned to special props and items of clothing. It's all too easy; it reminds me of my own puerile effort to put 'symbols' into a high school film, because any pattern automatically creates meaning. On the other hand, a couple of spooky moments in Don't Look Now better even the celebrated ghost visuals in The Innocents. John's uncanny sighting of Laura in mid-canal is exactly like a nightmare, a fleeting minatory glimpse of the impossible.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Don't Look Now is a 4K transfer that looks far better than the Paramount print I saw in Westwood in 1973 (with Miss Hirsch from the National Theater -- what was her first name?). The dark corners are no longer infested with grain, and we see gradients in color even when the star players slip into the creepy nighttime shadows. With the visual sense so heightened -- there's more to see in each image -- our hunt for the elusive phantom in the red hood is more exciting. The mix on the mono sound is so rich, that sounds seem to have shape, in place of direction. This is a great looking disc.
The extras are heavy on filmmaker interviews. Discussions, interviews and analysis are spread across five featurettes, one an older David Gregory overview docu for Blue Underground and others concentrating on specific aspects of the film. We hear from director Roeg, editor Graeme Clifford and cinematographer Anthony Richmond, as well as actors Sutherland and Christie; historians and critics Bobbie O'Steen and David Thompson (in text) are tapped as well. Former songwriter Pino Donaggio contributes his thoughts about the film's score, which appears to have been his feature composing debut. Finally, directors Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh are on tap to compliment and comment on Don't Look Now and Nicolas Roeg's style.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Don't Look Now Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.