Don’t Look Now: Seeing Red
NOTE: The following essay contains spoilers.
When Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was released in Britain in 1973, it was the main feature on a double bill with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. I can still recall emerging from the experience elated and also in something like a state of shock. While Hardy’s Hammer Films–ish take on paganism on a Scottish island has achieved cult status, Roeg’s extraordinary and enduring thriller is now frequently cited as one of the greatest of British films. In the early seventies, when even mainstream films could be fearless and experimental, smashing taboos and taunting the censors, cinema-going was a uniquely intense experience. But Don’t Look Now retains its power and mystery today thanks to Roeg’s mastery of what Alfred Hitchcock famously called “pure cinema,” manifest in his visual sleight of hand and above all in his refusal to be bound by the conventions of dialogue-driven narrative and simple chronology. All this has shaped a style that has justifiably come to be described as “Roegian.”
The film takes its title—disliked by distributors at the time, for fear that antagonistic critics would use it as a curt dismissal—from its source, a 1972 short story by Daphne du Maurier, who had also provided Hitchcock with material for two of his masterpieces, Rebecca and The Birds. Her tale begins intriguingly enough: “‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.’” The married couple in question, the Baxters, have recently lost their five-year-old daughter, Christine, to meningitis. They are holidaying in Venice, where they encounter two eccentric sisters, one of whom is blind and psychic and claims to see their daughter. In the screenplay by Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (the latter of whom went on to write 1986’s Castaway, 1990’s The Witches, and1991’s Cold Heaven for Roeg), the girl’s tragic death is the result of an accidental drowning, and the reason for the trip to the water-bound Italian city is John’s work restoring old churches—in particular, mosaics (like a mosaic, Don’t Look Now is a collection of fragments that make sense only when arranged by a master craftsman). The liquid that is so essential to life is also, in Roeg’s film, a harbinger of death, from the persistent rain on the pond in the very first shot to the murky canals in which murder victims are found. In the dazzling opening sequence, set at the couple’s home in England, John is looking at a photographic slide in which a mysterious hooded figure in red sits in a church pew. When he accidentally knocks a glass of water over it, the red bleeds across the slide, and an image of the red-coated Christine becoming submerged in the pond outside enters his mind. Later, in Venice, the same color will prompt another dreadful association for John when he glimpses a scampering short figure in red—perhaps a child, perhaps Christine, for certain his nemesis.
Before he shifted into direction in 1968, Roeg was one of Britain’s leading lighting cameramen, working for Roger Corman on The Masque of the Red Death (1964), for François Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and for John Schlesinger on Far from the Madding Crowd (1967). In all three films, the color red is a significant motif, appearing, respectively, in the hooded, faceless figure of Death, brightly painted fire engines, and the uniform of the dashing Sergeant Troy. (As Scott has pointed out, there was no reference in either the original story or the screenplay of Don’t Look Now to Christine’s or the mysterious figure in Venice’s wearing red, so this was entirely Roeg’s idea.) Curiously, Roeg even has a writing credit on a modest British thriller, 1962’s A Prize of Arms, which also begins with a fatal premonition involving water. While it would be hard to see any particular plan behind these concurrences, Roeg has a frequently stated belief that there is no such thing as coincidence, that somehow—as his father used to tell him—“everything is connected,” and that there is a strange destiny at work in our lives. It’s not difficult to appreciate how much du Maurier’s tale, which neither confirms nor denies the power of ESP or precognition, would have appealed to him. In story and film, though John is the skeptic and his wife, Laura, susceptible to the idea of a world beyond presented by the sisters, it is he who actually foresees the future but fails to heed the warnings of danger. “Seeing is believing,” he says at one point to comfort Laura. But does he believe all he sees?
In his first two films, 1970’s Performance (codirected with Donald Cammell) and 1971’s Walkabout, Roeg had already boldly begun to go his individual and eccentric way with fractured narratives, explosive juxtapositions, and a startling playfulness with time. He continued that exploration in Don’t Look Now, but this film really clicked with audiences and became a commercial success because the director had found the perfect genre vehicle for his own preoccupations. Roeg opens and closes Don’t Look Now with two distinctive exercises in montage. The first deals with the death of Christine, the second with the murder of John, when, as with the proverbial drowning man, his life flashes past in his mind in a seemingly random collection of images from throughout the film. Roeg also employs music to reinforce the connection between these two sequences. Pino Donaggio (then a successful Italian pop singer, later Brian De Palma’s composer of choice) came up with a simple theme that, in the opening scene, is played haltingly, as if by a child learning the piano, and then in John’s death montage is heard in a more fluent, not to say fluid, version.
That same music plays throughout the film’s famous love scene. Roeg filmed Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple having sex who are still very much in love with each other, without recourse to unusual gymnastics on their part or prettily stylized camera angles on his. Furthermore, he intercuts their nude rolling around with shots of them getting dressed later, granting their intimacy a verisimilitude and normalcy that are rarely seen in cinema. The presence of Donaggio’s gentle theme hints that this is a gesture by them toward conceiving another child. Roeg has even encouraged the interpretation that, when Laura smiles proudly in the final images of the funeral in Venice, it is not just because she feels that Christine and John are united in another world but also because she knows she is pregnant.
Roeg’s cinema makes us aware that if we only use our eyes, we will realize—as he slyly has John state early on—that “nothing is as it seems.” Right at the start of the film, during the opening credits, the shot of the pond under rain dissolves to a strange image of light glistening through a slatted window. The sounds of a man (later revealed to be John) humming and church bells tolling are clues that this is in fact the interior of the Baxters’ hotel room in Venice. Which time are we truly experiencing—past, present, or future? All of them at once, perhaps?
Throughout Don’t Look Now, unexpected and astounding connections are made by the simple act of a cut. Laura’s nervous gesture of putting her hands over her mouth rhymes with one made by Christine at the pond. The shot of a female corpse being raised out of the canal waters is married to the image of Christine drowning, but this time it is (just perceptibly) in reverse motion.
This masterly use of editing (Roeg working here in collaboration with future director Graeme Clifford) is especially evident in the scene in which John almost falls to his death from a raised platform in the church he is restoring. After a series of evenly timed shots showing different angles of him at work, we finally perceive (with the help of a slight creak on the soundtrack), at the top of the frame, a length of wood falling toward him in slow motion. Then, in a shot looking down from over his head, real time is extended so that the anticipated crash of the glass just above him is delayed, creating an even greater shock. John ends up swinging from a rope, the constant switching of angles building up the appalling sense of vertigo (all of which was prefigured in an earlier shot of Laura falling in slow motion, in a fit of dizziness). Sutherland has recalled how he agreed to perform this dangerous stunt himself after his double refused to do it, only later discovering that the wire that was supposed to make it safe could have easily snapped at any moment. Nothing is as it seems.
Had not Thomas Mann and Luchino Visconti already been there, Roeg’s film might just as easily have been called Death in Venice. But while Visconti depicts the city in the fetid heat of summer, Roeg shows us a Venice shrouded (literally, in the case of the hotel furniture) in winter dampness and death. There is little sense in the film of the iconic city as an overcrowded tourist destination, and famous views are carefully avoided (St. Mark’s Square can be just glimpsed in the deep background). Roeg and his director of photography, Anthony Richmond, using handheld cameras and zooms in a daringly free way, exploit the labyrinthine quality of the narrow backstreets, in which turning corners takes you from dark solitude to public frivolity and back again in an instant.
Roeg’s discovery of a church (the Church of St. Nicholas, no less, who we are told is the patron saint of scholars and children) that was already being restored was a happy “accident,” especially as it was already sporting a “Venice in Peril” sign, as well as a poster for the 1959 short film compilation The Chaplin Revue, the title pertinently rendered here as Uno contro tutti—“One Against All.”
The casting also fell perfectly into place for Roeg. Christie and Sutherland were his first choices for Laura and John, and though they were both initially unavailable, their prior commitments fell through at just the right moment. Both actors give career-best performances, playing off each other instinctually like a genuine couple. The humor and tenderness of their on-screen relationship balances the morbid aspects of Don’t Look Now, a necessary ploy in a story that confronts an audience (the parents in it, at least) with their worst fear. For the scene where Laura makes a sudden decision to enter a church, Roeg used the divergent spontaneous reactions of the two actors to the building to replace scripted dialogue, with Christie enthusiastically lighting candles as Sutherland distractedly plays with an electric lamp.
The two sisters are also ideally cast, for both their banality and their eccentricity, and Roeg is not above throwing in a shot of them laughing over a set of family photographs to suggest they may not be as sincere as Laura—and perhaps the audience—believes them to be. When John spies through a keyhole on their séance, he is taken by the neighbors to be a Peeping Tom, the absurdity of the situation compounded by the blind woman’s orgasmic vocalizations. There is a comic dimension too in John’s visit to the police inspector, who sits behind a desk and at first cannot be seen for a large lampshade. Roeg reinforced the cultural barrier between the anxious John and the dubious policeman by his choice of an Italian actor whose English was very poor, and who had learned his lines without fully understanding them.
While maintaining its strong narrative line with several heart-stopping sequences, Don’t Look Now is replete with such original moments, true to Roeg’s ethos of remaining open to the happy accidents that occur in filming, so that the meeting of life and celluloid becomes a dialogue, not a prescription. The result is an outstandingly rich film that—for a genre that is usually all about explaining a mystery away—can chill and surprise on repeated viewings. Roeg boldly demonstrates that psychic phenomena need not be the stuff of fantasy but can be rooted in the life experiences we all share—birth, sex, and death. Everything is connected.