Don’t Look Now

A few weeks ago, a co-worker, and good friend, of mine burst into rapturous accolades when he found a library discard copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. He had never read the original tale, but was a very big fan of the 1973 film adaptation by British film director Nicolas Roeg. “That ending really messed me up!” he said as he pushed the book into my hand, urging me to read it—and so I did.

Echoes from the Macabre (Avon, 1978).

Echoes from the Macabre (Avon, 1978).

I had never read any of du Maurier’s work before, but remembered enjoying Hitchcock’s film adaptation of “Rebecca”, so I was keen to check her out. Oddly enough, I later realized that I already had a copy of the story in a paperback collection called “Echoes from the Macabre”, which also contains her story “The Birds” also filmed by Hitchcock.

In Roeg's film, Christine drowns. The red mackintosh will come in to play later on as well. (German lobbycard)

In Roeg’s film, Christine drowns. The red mackintosh will come in to play later on as well. (German lobbycard)

“Don’t Look Now” tells the tale of a young couple, John and Laura Baxter, who are in the city of Venice as a retreat from the stress of having recently lost their daughter Christine to meningitis. Laura in particular has had a rough time of it and so far the trip seems to have been a bust; that is until they come across a pair of elderly sisters who give Laura renewed hope by telling her that Christine’s spirit is still around them and is happy. John isn’t happy about these strangers bringing up their dead daughter, but if it makes Laura happy again, he will tolerate it. Even so, he tries to avoid them at all costs whenever he spots them in their vicinity.

Laura and the twins.

Laura and the twins.

Despite his best efforts, Laura bumps into the sisters again and they implore her to return to England as they sense that John may be in danger if they stay on in Venice.  This does not go over well with John and they have an argument, but later that night they are awakened by a phone call from the boarding school in England where their son Johnny is staying informing them that he has been sent to the hospital with a case of what appears to be appendicitis. Laura takes this as proof that the sisters were right only mistaken about which John it was who was in danger.

Laura takes the last seat on the next flight back home but John is forced to stay a little longer till the next available return flight. Imagine his surprise when later that day John sees Laura with the two sisters on a “vaporetto” (a Venetian waterbus) returning to the island. However, when he tries to meet up with her back at their old hotel room, she is nowhere to be found, so he seeks the help of the local authorities.

Adding to the suspense, John has also caught several glimpses of a young girl in a rain coat and pixie hood flitting through the alleyways of Venice who brings to mind his lost daughter.  In the film this is emphasized by the use of a red mackintosh worn by Christine in the opening scene, who drowns in the film instead of dying from meningitis, and a similarly hued coat and hood worn by the fleeing figure. These two and John’s scarf are basically the only time we see the color red onscreen. The ensuing confusion leads John and the Venetian police on a wild goose chase which culminates in a totally unexpected ending that stays with one for some time afterward.

Nicolas Roeg’s film version of the tale garnered much notoriety upon its initial release and has become a cult favorite over the years partially because of the much talked about love scene between actors Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, which caused quite a stir back in the day and helped get the film an “R” rating in the US and an “X” in the UK.

“’We cannot see humping. We cannot see the rise and fall between thighs,’ the American censor advised Roeg. ‘I honestly couldn’t remember if there was any rise and fall, ‘ Roeg told Time Out in 1976

”I went away and examined the sequence very carefully, took out just nine frames and sent it back. They scrutinised it and found absolutely nothing they could object to. If someone goes up, you cut and the next time you see them and they’re in a different position, you obviously fill in the gaps for yourself. But, technically speaking, there was no ‘humping’ in that scene.” (BFI Modern Classics: Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson, 1996, BFI Publishing, pp 21-22)

Mark Sanderson's extensive overview of Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film.

Mark Sanderson’s extensive overview of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film.

Empire magazine recently asked cinematographer Tony Richmond to share some photos and thoughts on his experience making the film and in the quote next to the fourth photo, depicting Sutherland and Christie sitting up in bed he says of the infamous scene, “The interest in the scene is great for the movie, although the idea that they did it for real is crazy. Donald (Sutherland) emailed me about it the other day. Peter Bart, who was an executive at Paramount at the time, says he came to Venice and watched it in the room [Bart’s new book reiterates his claims that he witnessed Sutherland and Christie having sex for real]. I don’t remember him coming to Venice and I certainly don’t remember him in the room. There were five of us: Donald, Julie, Nic, me and the focus puller. We had some mics in the room and a sound mixer in the hallway, we shot it in an hour and we left. Donald went completely mad about it.” (http://www.empireonline.com/features/behind-the-scenes-dont-look-now/p4)

Christie and Sutherland take direction from Roeg.

Christie and Sutherland take direction from Roeg.

Watching this scene today it might seem rather tame in comparison to what one might see now on cable television, but for 1973, it was a pretty frank depiction of a couple’s love making.

Even so, the film’s reputation does not rest solely on a controversial love scene; “Don’t Look Now” is also a great Thriller in the Hitchcock mode in both style and substance. When John goes to the local authorities to report the disappearance of his wife, he finds out that unbeknownst to him there have been a string of murders around town that the police have been investigating. Of course, in typical Hitchcockian style, John becomes a suspect:

A body is winched out of the water (German Lobbycard).

A body is winched out of the water (German Lobbycard).

“The fact that John seeks the help of the Italian police voluntarily but leaves their headquarters under suspicion is a further Hitchcockian irony and Roeg exploits all its potential for black comedy. However, Inspector Longhi (who shares his name with a white lily often seen at funerals) does take John’s concern for Laura seriously, even though he is leading the hunt for a serial killer.” (BFI Modern Classics: Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson, 1996, BFI Publishing, pg 30)

This was definitely hinted at in the original story, but Roeg really plays it up having John followed by a detective as he tries to find the twins’ pension.

Roeg also pays tribute to the master by utilizing a shot technique Hitchcock used in one of his early classic films:

“’Don’t Look Now’ reveals Roeg’s admiration for Hitchcock, and, indeed, contains one direct tribute to him. The jump-cut at the end of the opening sequence in which Laura’s short, sharp scream merges with the drill as it pierces the stone of St Nicholas’s mirrors the cut in ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’(1935).” (BFI Modern Classics: Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson, 1996, BFI Publishing, pg 14)

All in all, “Don’t Look Now” is a great thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition. It is true to its source in essence, with only a few minor changes, which arguably help to pace and stretch out the tail into a feature-length film. In fact, author Daphne du Maurier was apparently pleased with the end result and apparently “…wrote to Roeg congratulating him on having captured the emotions of John and Laura.” (BFI Modern Classics: Don’t Look Now, Mark Sanderson, 1996, BFI Publishing, pg 15)

Early candid pic of Daphne du Maurier.

Early candid pic of Daphne du Maurier.

I agree, and will leave it at that so as not to give away any of the surprises which await the first time reader or viewer of this tale.

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