2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 20: Don’t Look Now (1973)

DAY. 20: HINDSIGHT IS 20/20: This one’s gotta have flashbacks in it (since looking ahead doesn’t seem to be working amirite?).

Don’t Look Now is the kind of movie that people should talk about in the same hushed tone that they reserve for The Exorcist and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and they don’t. That makes no sense to me, so perhaps these words will do something to change that.

Compared to Performance, director Nicolas Roeg’s directorial debut (he co-directed with Donald Cammell), this is a simple film. Compare it to anything else and it’s as complex as it gets. Roeg had already contributed to the horror genre with his director of photography work on The Masque of the Red Death, but this rumination on loss stands apart, using the genre itself to try and make sense out of the senseless.

In the same way that the giallo plays with themes of misinterpretation and mistaken identity often when it comes to sexual identity, this movie does the same when it comes to trying to get through the grief of losing a child and perhaps a marriage.

It’s also a deconstruction of how we perceive time through the lens of film. Instead of just flashbacks, this movie is filled with a fluid sense of time, in that we experience the past, present and the future almost simultaneously, as if we were Jon Osterman becoming the ubermensch Dr. Manhattan.

Real-life couple Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner (ironic, as this movie concerns a drowning death) were suggested for the leads of Laura and John Baxter, but Roeg only saw Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in his film. Sutherland was worried that the film gave a bad name to ESP, but Roeg told him this was the story they were telling.

John and Laura have come to Venice after the death of their daughter Christine in a drowning accident. While working to restore an ancient church, he meets two sisters. One of them, Heather (Hilary Mason, I Don’t Want to Be Born), is a psychic and she reveals that a great danger is coming for John. This danger — in all ways that we see time in the film — hangs as heavy as the death of his daughter, who the psychic reveals that she can see around the couple.

That night, before dinner, John and Laura finally make love after a long period of coolness, as she is relieved that her daughter seems to be at peace. This moment — the love scene is intercut with them getting ready for dinner afterward — plays with our notions of time, making this entire scene feel like a dream. It could also very well be an actual sex scene, as it was rumored for years that the acting couple was really having sex, to the consternation of Christie’s boyfriend Warren Beatty, who was usually the one doing the cucking.

At dinner, the couple is briefly separated and John sees what he believes to be his daughter. This image of her in the red coat she died in dominates the movie, luring him into more foreign places and deeper dangers. As their son is injured at boarding school, Laura must return home. Despite this, John sees her as part of a canal funeral procession. And oh yes — there’s also a serial killer on the loose.

I know that I often discuss the spoilers of films that are half a century old here, but in the hopes that you haven’t seen this film, I want you to enjoy the mystery that it presents for yourself. Roeg emerges as a consummate filmmaker here and this English giallo shot in Venice deserves so many more words than it has received.

If you don’t already own this — and you should — it’s on Amazon Prime.

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