Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #138 on the list, Nicolas Roeg. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
Okay, so when I first noticed the title Don’t Look Now on the list, I’ll admit my initial reaction was something along the lines of “Really? Surely this is some other movie that I’m not aware of, and not this rather obscure little creeper from 1973.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious to those who are long time readers of this blog that I have a special affinity for flicks from the late 1960s and early 70s, and I do love me some Donald Sutherland, but not only was it on the list, but it was ranked higher than what is considered one of the definitive horror films of the period, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (#196, reviewed here) and the the movie that almost invariably makes all the Top Horror Film lists, 1980’s The Shining (#156 which I haven’t written up yet, but will eventually get to)? That can’t be right, can it? But yep. there it was.
So, since I was looking for a little bit of lighter fair this week, and since it was right there streaming on Netflix, I decided now was as good a time as any to see what was up. And what I found was surprising.
Actually, now it seems like the biggest surprise is that this movie somehow managed to stay off my radar for so long. I mean, just looking at the names involved – the screenplay was adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, whose works provided the inspiration for three Alfred Hitchcock films: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Birds, and as I’ve already mentioned, it was directed by Nicholas Roeg, who not only also during the same period directed such intriguing films as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth, but had earlier served as cinematographer on a number of movies such as The Masque of the Red Death, Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451,, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Plus, alongside the aforementioned Donald Sutherland, the film also stars Julie Chrisite who was not only at her most lovely during this period, but was making some truly good and well-acclaimed films herself.
That’s the background, then, but what about the movie itself?
There’s a certain vibe to thriller/suspense movies of the 70s that I’m not sure I can describe, but that seems unique to that particular time period, and Don’t Look Now is a perfect example of that type of film. This is not a film that could have been made, say, in the 40s or 50s, and even if it were to be remade today, it simply would not be the same. Like many of the movies of the time it was experimenting and questioning, trying to push many boundaries, and yet with a certain restraint that not only keeps it from going too far but also, in its own way serves to heighten the tension that is felt not only in the plot itself, but between the lead characters of John and Laura Baxter, played by Sutherland and Christie.
Okay, perhaps I should back up just a bit. The film opens with John and Laura, along with their children Christine and John Jr. living in England. We see John and Julie working inside their house while the children play outside. Suddenly John, for seemingly no reason, rushes from the house to look for the children, but he arrives too late to save Christine, who has accidentally fallen into a creek near the house from drowning.
Some undetermined amount of time later, the Baxters, minus John Jr., who has been sent to a boarding school, are living in Venice, where John has taken a job restoring an ancient church. One day while they are dining, they notice a pair of sisters at a table near to where they are dining. One of the sisters gets something in her eye, and when Laura follows them into the ladies room to see if she can help remove it, the other sister, who not only turns out to be blind but claims to be psychic, tells Laura the she has been contacted by the spirit of Christine and that she is alright and happy. The sisters then leave the restaurant, and Laura, returning to the table begins to tell John about the women, but suddenly collapses.
Upon recovering from her fainting spell, Laura seems to John to be a changed person. Not only has she seemingly recovered from her grief over the loss of their daughter, but she has become obsessed with spending more time with the two sisters, trying to get them to contact Christine again and to speak to her.
From there, the movie takes a number of twists and turns in a plot that involves further exploration not only of the sister’s psychic powers but of perhaps latent powers within John that are beginning to cause him to have visions of things that may or may not actually be happening, a serial killer who is loose in Venice, and a mysterious figure that John keeps seeing from the corner of his eye and may or may not be the resurrected figure of his dead daughter.
Throughout all of this, Roeg, with the assured assistance of his editor Graeme Clifford, continues to keep the viewer off balance by using a number of techniques, the most prominent of which is intercutting certain scenes with others, which under less skilled hands and eyes would certainly prove more of a distraction, but here serve to heighten the tension in some scenes or, as in the justly lauded and at the same time somewhat infamous lovemaking scene between Sutherland and Christie which is interspersed with shots of the couple getting ready for an evening out afterwards, to provide insight into both the closeness and the separation between the couple.
Roeg also uses the city of Venice to great effect, highlighting and taking advantage of its uniqueness without making it seem as though the movie is continually shouting “Look! We’re in Venice!” as so many other movies shot in that location tend to do.
That is not to say that Don’t Look Now is a perfect film. Even after watching it, and even admitting the mastery that Roeg brings to the enterprise, I still find myself somewhat wondering about its high rank on the list. Without giving away the ending, I will simply say that when all the various threads do come together, it is with an abruptness that leaves the viewer with a certain feeling of “is that it”? Yes, there are definitely films that leave the viewer with a sense of ambiguity and a certain number of questions and do that effectively, but that’s not really the case here. Instead, in the end, the feeling is more akin to “okay, so what”? Even the final revelation, which I suppose is meant to be a shocking twist really, again for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on doesn’t have that sense of inevitability that might have benefited this film more, nor does it really provide any answers to the question of why these things have been happening. Thus, unlike a film such as Rosemary’s Baby (which didn’t even make the list) where the climax truly satisfies in a way that is so disturbing that it assuredly caused many a nightmare, Roeg’s film just doesn’t seem like one that will cause any sleepless nights.
Here’s a trailer: