23 July 2014

(1973)

Perhaps the most famous scene in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is not a scene of horror at all. It's a display of lovemaking by the two leads, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. At the time of this movie's release, it was said that they weren't acting at all during the filming of the racy sequence...they were actually making love.

That juicy nugget aside, Don't Look Now remains one of the most hauntingly surreal pictures ever made. Elements of the plot can be found in films as diverse as The Haunting of Julia, Alice, Sweet Alice and The Brood. In addition, the superb editing by Graeme Clifford continues to be the subject of many a film course.

Restoration expert John Baxter (Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Christie) live a quiet life on their estate just outside of London. They have two children, Johnny (Nicholas Salter) and Christine (Sharon Williams).

One day while working, John notices a strange figure in one of his transparency slides. It's a photo taken inside a church he is to begin work on - and there's a mysterious figure sitting in one of the pews wearing a red hood. John spills a glass of water and when he looks closely again at the photo, a red ink spot is seeping from where the figure is seated.

John gets an odd premonition that something is wrong. The kids have been playing outside and Christine (wearing a red rain slicker) has had an accident. While trying to retrieve a ball from the pond, she's fallen into the water and is drowning.

John rushes out and sees this ghastly sight. Almost in a trance...he lifts the little girl out of the water and screams out in frustration. He tries mouth to mouth but it's too late. As the heartbroken father carries the body towards the house, Laura steps outside and screams in shock.

Life goes on for the Baxters. They're temporarily staying in Venice where John has his assignment. One afternoon, while the couple are eating at a restaurant, John takes note of two women sitting near them who keep staring.

For some reason, they make him uneasy. There is a draft and when a door to the restaurant blows open, one of the ladies gets something in her eye. The two get up to go to the restroom and Laura follows them to help out.

Wendy (Clelia Matania) and her blind sister Heather (Hilary Mason) apologize for staring so much and are grateful for Laura's assistance. Heather is psychic and has a vision of a bereaved couple leaving their English estate on a rainy afternoon.

She tells Laura not to be sad about Christine. "I've seen her and she wants you to know that she's happy. She was laughing," she says. When Heather mentions that the little girl was wearing a shiny red Mack, Laura becomes emotional and nearly passes out.

After the sisters have left, Laura goes back to the table and faints. She's taken out by paramedics to a medical boat in the nearby canal. At the hospital, Laura is in a giddy mood and tells John that Christine is still with them.

She explains about the blind psychic and says she feels great. Her husband is skeptical yet happy that Laura is alright.

She is checked out of the hospital and while riding in a boat, they pass a crime scene. It appears there have been a series of murders in this beautiful city. Laura insists on stopping at a church to say a prayer. Once inside, she lights several candles for their daughter.

John sees a group being given a tour of the magnificent structure and notices the two sisters. Heather unsettles him by staring directly at him. He's late to an appointment - so John grabs Laura and they leave immediately.

They meet briefly with Bishop Barbarrigo (Massimo Serato) to discuss the restoration work on his church and Laura kisses his ring. When the priest asks her if she's Christian, Laura is thrown off by the question and tells him she is kind to animals and children. John makes plans to meet with Barbarrigo later in the week.

Back at their hotel room, the couple relax by bathing. (See Julie Christie's breasts! See Donald Sutherland's butt!) They make love for what seems like an eternity (four minutes and 10 seconds to be exact...at least on film) and then head out for dinner.

Walking through the deserted winding streets of this old city, they end up in a dark underpass. "I know this place," John says. Suddenly, a yell from a window to a child below startles them. The kid is wearing a red hooded slicker and quickly disappears.

At work the next day, Laura stands nearby and watches her husband. Heather and Wendy are in the area and Laura meets up with them. She wants to hear more about Christine and the sisters oblige.

Laura tells them that John rushed out to the pond the day their daughter died...as if he knew something was going to happen...and Heather realizes that he too has "the gift." This is why the child is trying to talk to him. Calling it "a curse" as well, the woman says that John may not even know he is psychic.

Laura wants to contact Christine. Heather says she does not like to disturb the dead for entertainment purposes but she and her sister invite the Baxters for tea. Laura would like to accept the offer but John isn't thrilled.

He tells her is does not want to "get involved with two neurotic old women in a session of mumbo jumbo." Laura ends up going to their hotel room by herself while John waits in a nearby cafe.

The sisters give her some whiskey for her nerves. Laura notices photos of some children. Next to them is a small bust of a boy whose name was Angus. He was Wendy's son and died at a very young age.

The lights are turned out and Heather begins trying to communicate with Christine. Something is wrong and Heather becomes quite agitated.

John gets the urge to join his wife and finds the hotel. As he approaches the sisters' room, he's met by a few hostile non-English speaking men. John leaves and goes back to the café. Laura meets him after her session and is aware that he's been drinking heavily.

Laura tries to explain what happened. She tells him that Heather went into a trance and that the psychic senses that John's life is in danger while he's in Venice. All this talk makes John feel sick and he goes into the bathroom to throw up.

His wife implores him to leave the city because Christine is trying to warn them about something. John becomes increasingly angry and says their daughter is dead. Laura tells him she thinks she may need to see her shrink - or at least stop seeing the sisters. She also says that John should take some time off from his work and he agrees.

During the night, the Baxters get a call from Johnny's headmaster, Anthony Babbage (David Tree) and his wife Mandy (Ann Rye). They tell the couple that there has been an accident at the school and that Johnny has been injured.

Laura says she is going back to England immediately and believes this is what they were being warned about. She reminds John to ask the Bishop for time off and asks if he would like to go with her. John tells her to call him that night and he will try and get away for the weekend.

They say goodbye at the dock. John goes to the church to speak with Bishop Barbarrigo, who shows him some pieces that have arrived for the restoration of a mosaic.

John climbs up towards the ceiling to see if they match. There's an accident while he's standing on a scaffold and he nearly falls to the ground. John manages to grab on to a rope and is pulled to safety.

Although he's shaken by this, he isn't seriously hurt. Bishop Barrbarigo tells John that he lost his father in a fall - but John can only think about Heather's prophecy about his misfortune. The two men come across a murder scene in the canal, which unnerves John further. When he sees the body of a young girl pulled out, he thinks back to his daughter's accident.

The hotel where he's staying is closing for the winter - so John begins to pack his things. While on a boat in the canal, he catches an odd glimpse: he thinks he sees Laura with the two sisters solemnly standing on a boat that sails by.

Back at the hotel, no one has seen his wife. But he is certain that Laura never left for England and is still somewhere in Venice.

John makes an effort to find Heather and Wendy, as well as Laura. He has an artist render drawings of the sisters and he takes them to Inspector Longhi (Renato Scarpa). John explains the whole story to the investigator, who doesn't understand the rationale for his fear.

John seems to get nowhere and leaves. He searches through the streets by himself (or so he believes) for the women. He's being followed by Detective Sabbione (Bruno Cattaneo) the entire time.

Finally, John finds the sisters' hotel but they aren't there. He goes to see Bishop Barbarrigo and while waiting for him, John calls the Babbages to check up on his son. They tell him that everything is fine and then hand the phone over to Laura so she can speak to him.

John is perplexed since he truly believed he saw her in Venice earlier in the day. Laura tells him she's catching a flight back to Venice in time for supper and gives him the flight information.

The authorities have found the sisters and detained them. Wendy is taken to the British consulate while Heather waits at the police station. John goes to see Heather and apologizes for the misunderstanding. He walks her through the dark streets of the city and to her hotel. Wendy greets them and says she and her sister are leaving the next day.

Meanwhile, Laura has arrived back and is taken to the police station. Inspector Longhi gives her an address for the sisters.

As John is about to leave their hotel room, Heather has a vision and becomes hysterical. "Let him not go!" she screams. Wendy tries to call after him but it's too late. When Laura gets there, Heather says that she must find John and warn him because something horrible is going to happen.

While walking through the dark misty streets, John again sees the little girl in the red raincoat. He chases after her as Laura tries to keep up with him. In a dark underpass, he finds the girl crying...with her back turned to him and facing a wall. As he approaches her, she turns around. The "girl" is a dwarf with the face of a wizened old woman.

Shaking her head as if to say "no" - she promptly pulls out a huge knife from her pocket and slashes John in the neck. He falls to the ground, blood gushing all around him. At that moment, Heather screams and the Bishop wakes up from his sleep...as if he too senses something dreadful.

Everything is clear now. The somber procession was a vision John had for his own death. The final scene is indeed a sad one, as we see Laura and the two sisters attending his funeral.

Don't Look Now is a stunning piece of work from director Nicolas Roeg. Beautifully shot, the film has an unmistakable air of doom and gloom.

If ever there was a movie to describe as atmospheric, this is the one. The classical art, the seepy mystery of the canals, funeral imagery - and a general sense of dread propel this puppy to its amazing climax.

Throw in the infamous Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie love romp and you have a very real, very hypnotic horror film that ranks as one of the most haunting efforts in the genre.

Sutherland and Christie were two of the finest actors of their generation. Sutherland had become a major star with Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and the stunning Christie had won an Academy Award for Darling in 1965.

Pino Donaggio composed the lovely score and did a superb job. The music perfectly captures the beauty of Venice.

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