Saturday, June 4, 2011

DON'T LOOK NOW 1973

There is nothing like a good scare at the movies. I don't mean those jarring, throw-your-popcorn-in-air, dig-your-nails-into-your-partner's-arm, moments (ah, sweet memories of Wait Until Dark). As fun as they can be, those moments are over too swiftly. What I refer to are those far more satisfying, lasting feelings of intensifying disquietude which overtake you the moment a movie starts to touch an anxiety or sense of dread that runs deeper than mere surprise in the face of the unexpected. When the passive role of observer — the moviegoer's emotional safety-valvegives way to the more active role of projected participant. Suddenly, you're relating to the film on a visceral level, and all the while an electric current running through you is taking great delight in your being brought to such a vulnerable state of apprehension by mere flickering images projected on a screen.  

It happened once when I was a kid and saw Rosemary's Baby and it happened again as an adult with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, an opaque, atmospheric thriller that proves when it comes to scary stories, it's all in the telling.
  Julie Christie  as  Laura Baxter
  Donald Sutherland  as John Baxter
Hilary Mason as Heather, the blind woman with "second sight"
  Clelia Matania as Wendy
An off-season assignment to restore a decaying church in Venice, Italy affords architect Donald Sutherland and wife Julie Christie the opportunity to leave behind tragic memories associated with their English country home—the site of the recent accidental drowning death of their young daughter. However, Venice in winter, a shuttered city blanketed in gray skies, desolate streets, and half-empty cafes and hotels, is grim and foreboding. A feeling further intensified by the city being beset by a string of grisly, unsolved murders. With the “chance” meeting of a pair of eccentric elderly sisters, one blind and claiming to have psychic connection with the deceased child, a chain of events is triggered...events as labyrinthine and dark as the streets of Venice themselves.
                              The unforeseeable foreseen.
                              A sense of something not being right.
                              An accident. A premonition. A fate.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
What one considers scary is as subjective a designation as what one considers to be funny, so I'm aware my claim of Don't Look Now being one of the scariest movies I've ever seen is not the same thing as saying it's a scary movie. Its setup and execution I'm sure is far too leisurely and bloodless for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre crowd, and the label of "arty" would not be baseless in describing both its structure and visual style. But for whatever reason or whatever chord it struck, this darkly mysterious merge of the rational and paranormal just scared the bejesus out of me when I first saw it. And continues to do so even today.
Venice in Peril
A sign calling attention to the endangered status of Venice architecture also 
alludes ominously to the serial killer terrorizing the city.

PERFORMANCES
I claim no objectivity when it comes to Julie Christie. To the head-scratching bewilderment of my partner, who thinks she's fine enough but nothing to rave about, I find her to be an intelligently resourceful actress who brings an air of emotive conviction to everything she does. And it certainly doesn't hurt that she is a stone knockout, to boot. Her matter-of-fact naturalness proves an essential asset in a film such as this, lest her character be made to appear hysterical or unbalanced. Donald Sutherland underplays so well (usually, anyway) that the skill of his performances are often overlooked. In Don't Look Now he is at his relaxed best, making his character a believable skeptic in the face of the fantastic. Watch the play of emotions over his face as his character tries to sort out the mystery that his life has become. It's just the kind of in-the-moment urgency that is lacking in so many suspense films. Sutherland seems to be right with us, the audience, not a step ahead nor a step behind. I think he's fantastic here.
The much-discussed graphic sex scene between Christie and Sutherland is but one of many moments of genuine affection displayed between the couple. Moments that invest the film with a real sense of the pain of loss.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There's a chilling sequence in which the couple venture out at night, seeking a restaurant. The dark streets and alleys prove an insurmountable maze and they become lost and eventually separated. In the midst of this an unearthly cry is heard and something terrifying is half seen. This scene just had my pulse racing. It is a brilliant bit of  cinematic tension.
Things only half seen and half heard.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The film's title is really splendid. No matter how you say it, literal or ironic, whatever you think it means, whatever punctuation you add or where you place the emphasis; it remains 100% appropriate to the film's themes. It speaks of warning, apprehension, sight, and danger. All elements of the film evocatively rendered in the recurring motifs of eyes, watching , seeing, and reflecting.
A woman without sight watches.

The city is full of windows but no one sees the murderer.

A child drowns when no one is watching.

The whole of  Don't Look Now is an awakening to the danger inherent in not heeding signs of warning, not being watchful, not seeing, not looking. As the poster for the movie states, "Pass the warning."
A good example of why a film like "Don't Look Now" warrants several viewings.
A quick insert shot  reveals of Donald Sutherland's nightstand (a man who refuses to acknowledge his second-sight) reveals: a photo of his children with the drowned daughter's face obscured; a glass of water with a symbolically significant red base; and a paperback copy of Der Stellvertreter (subtitled, A Christian Tragedy) by Rolf Hochhuth - a play alleging the Catholic Church turned its back on (failed to see, if you will)  the warning signs of The Holocaust. Playing further into the themes of not looking and paying little heed, in a later scene, a Catholic Bishop wonders aloud if perhaps God has "other priorities" or whether "we have stopped listening."

A thriller in all senses of the word, Don't Look Now is one of those rare suspense films that doesn't lose its punch once you've unearthed its mystery. One of the chief reasons I find it so rewarding a movie to watch again and again is that every scene and sequence is full of so much information (apparent and hidden), each revisit feels like a new experience. It doesn't matter if the things unearthed were intended by the director or not. Like all art, a film takes on a life of its own after its creation, and beauty...as well as terror...remains in the eye of the beholder.



BONUS MATERIAL
Don't Look Now theatrical trailer:


Copyright © Ken Anderson

16 comments:

  1. yes, this was one of the more upsetting movies i've seen - also one of my favorites. the music is absolutely devastating - i found the soundtrack and when i listen to it, i feel just as lost, shattered and flooded as i did while living through the characters in the film. indeed, it is not just a film that entertains, it is a film that invades. every time red pops out of the grey layered landscapes (and costumes), every time the sound of glass breaking, something in me will flinch. the strong play on omens in this film rivals 'the sheltering sky' - in fact, i find the two stories very similar. the sickening dread is present even in the opening credits and it builds and builds throughout in a terrifying manner.

    oh, i could go on and on about this movie. on a lighter note, the wardrobe in the film is just gorgeous - every fall i find myself copying the looks of laura baxter, hat and all.

    thanks for yet another enlightening review!!!!

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  2. Hi Kathryn Nova
    It's getting so I am looking forward to your comments! You always take note of some part of a film I've overlooked (the music IS beautifully eerie and creates atmosphere so perfectly, like the music in "Klute").
    I will have to see "The Sheltering Sky" now.
    Also, very cool of you to take note of Christie's wardrobe. She looks pretty classy here. Especially in that traveling suit...I always thought she looked KILLER in those boots she wears throughout!

    Thanks for another well-written, thoughtful comment. I like your taste in movies :-)

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  3. What a great post, and review of the this great iconic movie. They really don't make movies like this anymore. all special effects and gore noting left to the imagination. What a stunning cast too.
    xnicki
    nicki fannings blogspot

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    1. Hi Nicki
      Thank you very much for the your kind comment! I'm glad you're as fond of this movie as I am. And, regrettably, you're right; filmmakers today don't trust audiences (or lack the talent)to build suspense and let the imagination take over. And yes, what an amazing cast!
      Thanks again!

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  4. don't make them like this anymore, indeed. A great read. And thanks so much for the picture and comments on the insert shot. Just incredible. Roeg: such a talent.

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    1. So true, isn't it? I know there are great independent films made today, but a major motion picture as strange and willing to be misunderstood as this seems unthinkable in todays spell-it-all-out marketplace. I'm happy to hear from another fan of Roeg and this film, and I'm glad you enjoyed the insert shot details. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. This is one of my favorite films, and I found Sutherland and Christie truly convincing as this married couple. There are so many others, but I find this one of Julie Christie's finest performances, she's so haunting, a survivor but fragile and vulnerable. Just splendid work by all concerned!

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    1. You're so right, really splendid work all around. It's a marvelous film that's allowed to tell the story it wants to tell without any (obvious) bowing to what would make a "hit" movie. Happy to hear it's one of your favorites! thanks very much for commenting.

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  6. When I was reading the DuMaurier short story Variety was running a big ad; 'Now shooting on location with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland' (I still have it in a scrap album, together with ads of productions that in the end were never realized, or without the promised star). The same announcement was also on the blurb of the Penguin pocket edition I had bought because I was very into DuMaurier at the time.
    I don't think I grasped the story very well, because it took a while before I discovered that I was no longer reading Don't Look Now, I was already well into the next story from that collection...
    I also had seen hardly any movies with Julie or Donald so far. Of course I knew who they were, and so the characters in the the Maurier version already had a prefixed face. The same happened to me with Rosemary's Baby as a series in a weekly magazine, 'now filming with Mia Farrow'). Wham- Rosemary Woodhouse from Peyton Place!
    It was also confusing that the illustration on the cover of the DuMaurier book showed a Laura that didn't look like Julie Christie at all.
    In the end it appeared to be the same story, while at the same time the movie wasn't anything I expected...

    In my town, 'Don't look now' had run in a prominent theater for only four weeks before it was dumped at a small semi-art house dwelling, and there it would run for another two unprofitable weeks. I worked there as an operator who also handled the management.
    I remember it so clearly. I received the box with cans in the morning and spliced the six rolls together. In those days I was obliged to program an Intermission halfway - yes, horrible isn't it? - and what I usually did was give myself a private screening first to be able to pick the least annoying moment for a break (a colleague ruined Kurosawa's 'Dreams' in my absence by putting an intermission smack in the middle of the Tunnel segment, I almost killed him) .
    So I sat there all by myself in the dark auditorium gazing at lovely Julie Christie, and felt myself shrinking more and more in my chair, and after the first segment had played, I had a thumping head ache and my face felt feverish. I had never seen a movie scene so haunting, so emotionally shattering. When Laura's scream was replaced by the scream of a drilling machine, I JUMPED.
    After the cashier had arrived for her shift I told her: 'When the movie starts, I'll give you a ring and you'll stop selling tickets right away.' I simply didn't want late customers barging into the auditorium during that scene. I would have killed them.

    Don't Look Now is not quite in my Top 5 of fav movies, but that overture in itself is a definite number One.
    In later years I learned that Donald Sutherland's audible gasp when he plunges into the ditch wasn't acted. The casting of Sutherland, mostly known for comedy roles, was a stroke of genius in itself, by the way.
    But it isn't so much about acting qualities in that opening scene. It's about brilliant cutting of shots loaded with devilishly clever premonition signs. Plus the camera movements, the sparse, airy yet ominous dialogue, the music during the accident with the wine glass, Laura's restless pacing, yet having no idea that outside there is something going horribly wrong- I witnessed pure cinematic genius. In 1974, cinema for me had reached a point where I thought, 'It can't get any better than this.'

    - end of part I -

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    1. - part II -

      This film is so incredibly rich. The interplay in the restaurant between Laura and the two odd but also homey sisters, creating a feeling of utter unreality. The way Laura sits there in the lady's room, dazed, it breaks my heart. Laura, when she goes into denial over Christine's death and has John snapping at her, you see her literally recoiling. Venice, turned into a world that would even chill Venetian citizens (and they certainly must have felt a drop in tourist figures for some years to come).
      I've seen the movie many times, but the detail of the telephone obscuring Christine's face in the photograph had escaped me until I saw mentioning of it here. I marvel over such touches, it's exactly what adds to the brilliance of Rosemary's Baby as well. The fun, the satisfaction of (re)discovering a movie this way, I love it.

      And, just like I have been searching in vain for a new Rosemary's Baby in Polanski's work, I searched for a new Don't Look Now in Nicholas Roeg's, and never found it. Bad Timing, boring, Man Who Fell To Earth, a freak show with a trendy icon and his (again!) badly wigged co-star. Castaway, a forgettable romcom.
      To my idea Roeg has never surpassed himself. Christie and Sutherland have played many a sublime role in the years after, but in regard to character insight seldom on this level. There should be Oscars for 'Best Screen Chemistry'!
      Even Pino Donaggio never composed a finer score. When I play the record, the movie comes back with full force. This production was touched by magic from beginning to end.

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  7. I see I need to make a correction...Candy Clark was badly wigged in Back To The Future. Poor Candy, she was actually the best thing in The Man Who Fell To Earth!

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  8. O, this is a great mess- that was not Candy, in Back To The Future...

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    1. Hi Willem
      This is the space for me to respond to all your wonderful posts because you sound so amusingly exasperated. You wouldn't be thinking of that stiff-looking blonde wig Candy Clark wore in "American Graffiti", could you?

      on the topic of "Don't Look Now", thank you for sharing such a great story about your history with it. I especially love the intermission editing and preserving the integrity of the piece by prohibiting patrons from coming in during those all-important early moments.
      Reading your thoughts on the film is very satisfying because you really allowed yourself to be immersed in the experience. You create a vivid picture of what you appreciate about the film and what it has meant to you. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. Such a heartfelt tribute to a deserving film!

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    2. Yes of course, American Graffiti! thanks.

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  9. "....he is at his relaxed best, making his character a believable skeptic in the face of the fantastic. ... I think he's fantastic here." Ha! I see what you did there.

    I only saw this movie as an adult (2006 or so), and so far only the once, but really thought a lot of it. It took me a while of thinking about it to decide that not only does Sutherland refuse to acknowledge his second sight, but basically, he's punished for this refusal (the way that in a more standardly moralistic movie, a murder in the first act must bring the death of the murderer in the last).

    I'm forgetting the detail that convinced me of this. It had to do with him seeing the women on the gondola on a day they weren't there, and that leading him to the wrong place at the wrong time, and gotcha! but I remember deciding that if he'd interpreted his vision as a vision, he might have escaped.

    Great movie (as often), great review (as always).

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    1. Hi Allen
      I like your take on the film, especially the Sutherland character that I too think is the one who suffers for his refusal to acknowledge his second sight. Hi stubbornness reminds me of a character in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"; a character so caught up in the rules of the material world that he fails to pay attention to that which is present in plain sight before his eyes.
      And you're right, Sutherland's misinterpretation of one of his visions makes him assume his wife is in the city, and takes him along a path that leads to a tragic end. All the more tragic because he is willing to accept the possibility of the supernatural at the exact wrong time.
      A fascinating film. Thank you for sharing your insights about it.

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