Don’t Look Now opens with one of the most utterly perfectly conceived & executed – not to mention devastatingly powerful – montages in the whole of cinema. Every shot is framed impeccably (despite the largely hand-held camerawork that is pleasingly free), & are edited together with just the right amount of detail & length to simply & seemingly effortlessly give a perfect sense of time & place, & set out the geographical relationships between the characters. Not a frame is wasted or inessential in the whole sequence. More than just that, the relationships between individual shots are of vital importance too. Shots are cut together for precise purposes as images bounce off each other, giving one another new meaning & importance. Simple little thing become horribly portentous, puzzling images become portents of doom by association, & the full implications of certain images are not fully clear until much later, if at all. Not just images, but sound is used brilliantly too. From Pino Donaggio’s simple yet beautiful piano theme (which almost sounds like it’s being performed by a child, pausing to move the hands to the correct positions for the next note), to the harsh sudden sound of glass breaking, or the complete silence as a child runs screaming. The unearthly, anguished howl uttered by John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), accompanied by Donaggio’s deep, tragic strings is almost unbearably devastating. This all makes it sound like a purely technical exercise, however, but what is possibly most impressive about the sequence is the way in which, despite its’ undoubted immense technical & theoretical accomplishment, what lingers in the memory most is the humane & emotional content of the scene. And that is what moves it from being "merely" extremely good to the status of absolute masterpiece. This observation applies equally well to the film as a whole.
This devastating opening sets the tone & atmosphere for the whole film, & is one of its’ three most talked about scenes – the others being the love scene, & the quite shattering conclusion, which I shall try not to spoil here, despite the fact that it’s impossible to fully explain why the film is so great without doing so. The film has a continuous, all-enveloping mood & atmosphere that crawls under your skin & refuses to leave for days. Roeg takes his time with the film, picking up a collection of disturbing images & moments, put together almost like the mosaic John tries to restore, & takes the mood of grief & despair, & instils in them an ever-growing, oppressive, gnawing sense of unease, terror, & impending & inevitable tragedy. There’s a feeling of time slowly running out (& unnerving dislocation of time) that is unmatched, except perhaps by Nosferatu. And that film can’t come close to matching the touching humanity of Roegs’ film, & the emotional force that surrounds the Baxter’s in their attempts to escape their grief. In a key shot, we see a plank falling silently. We know that doom is about to strike, but have to watch the character painfully unaware of what’s coming before it strikes.
Vision is one of the key themes of the film, & many times are we reminded of the difference between merely viewing, & actually seeing & understanding. Second sight is prominent, both in the blind psychic, & John himself who can’t or won’t admit to himself that he too has the gift. This theme is echoed in the visuals, with plenty of reflections – for example the huge array of mirrors in the bathroom where Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) meets the psychic & her sister – temporarily blinded when some dust or somesuch blew into her eye. As ever, the technical & theoretical side of this, although outstanding, never overshadows the dramatic & emotional content of the scene. Another key theme is communication. One simple example that I quite like is the way in which the Italians speak to each other in Italian, with no subtitles.
Roeg was a cinematographer before turning to direction (amongst others, he shot the Corman/Price Masque of the Red Death, which has a similar figure cloaked in red), often not a good sign, but happily Roeg can rank alongside the likes of Mario Bava as one of the best. He had debuted alongside Donald Cammell with Performance, & then delivered Walkabout with Jenny Agutter. Both were exceptional, but Don’t Look Now stands tall above both as Roegs’ masterpiece. It has a very prominent visual style. The portrayal of Venice as a city that is falling into the sea, its’ picture postcard image hiding the truth of dark, decaying alleyways filled with fear, is simply breathtakingly atmospheric. Roeg & credited cinematographer Anthony Richmond (Roeg acted as his own DOP for some sequences) fill the film with haunting, desolate images that hang around in your mind, & make great (& non-intrusive) use of slow motion at times. Graeme Cliffords’ editing is impeccably brilliant.
An enormous amount of credit for the success of the film must also be laid on the actors. There’s not a bad performance in the whole film, & particular mention must be made of Hilary Mason & Clelia Matania as the psychic & her sister. But the film belongs to Sutherland & Christie. There have been many screen marriages, but I can think of none more convincing than this. They are entirely convincing, & their relationship has a touching naturalness & tenderness that is without equal. They also share probably the most convincing, sensual, erotic, & moving simulated sex scene in cinema history, intercut with scenes of them dressing for dinner afterwards.
Don’t Look Now also marked the debut of composer Pino Donaggio, a former songwriter ("You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me") & concert violinist. He gained the assignment appropriately enough when an associate producer claimed to have had a psychic vision that he should write the score. He would later go on to score many other films for the likes of Brian de Palma, Joe Dante, Luigi Cozzi, & Dario Argento. Don’t Look Now is an outstanding debut, featuring a pair of beautiful & heartbreaking themes amongst the darker suspenseful strings that would become one of his trademarks.
Don’t Look Now is a remarkable exercise in restraint. For the most parts there’s no blood & guts, Donaggios' score is intelligently used only when necessary, & there are no daft sudden shock, excessive melodrama or easy sensationalism, or sentimentality. Roeg’s approach to slowly build up the oppressive atmosphere means that this isn’t a film to watch for a quick fix of fun gore or thrills, & it’s intensely emotional nature means that you really do have to be in the right mood to appreciate it. But if you are willing to invest a little time & patience into the film, Don’t Look Now delivers magnificently. It’s the perfect mixture of form, structure, & heart. It’s a humane, puzzling & utterly shattering piece of high art cinema that has to be seen to be appreciated. And very possibly my most favourite film of all time.
The UK DVD from Warner Bros & Studio Canal comes in R2/PAL format. The picture is a 1.85:1 widescreen image, which is 16:9 enhanced. It’s of pretty good quality, although it seemed a touch soft & grainy in places, particularly during the darker scenes. The audio is a 2.0 Dolby track, which is reasonable for the most part, although there is some nasty distortion at times, most notably during the very final scene where it has some problems with Donaggio’s lyrical score.
The principal extra is a new documentary “Don’t Look Now – Looking Back”, which runs 20 minutes and features intelligent & articulate interviews with Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B Richmond, & editor Graeme Clifford. It’s a pretty good piece, & plays like all the best bits of a commentary put together, only without having some guy yapping away whilst you’re watching the film. It’s just a shame that Sutherland & Christie are absent. You also get the original theatrical trailer, & for those with a DVD-ROM drive, you can view the original theatrical campaign brochure.
Overall, this is not the drop-dead great Don’t Look Now DVD that the film truly deserves, but it is a reasonably good effort, that will undoubtedly keep me going just fine until someone else releases a better version.