Classic Corner: Don’t Look Now

He turned on both taps in the bathroom. The water gushing into the bath, the steam rising. “Now,” he thought afterwards, “now at last is the moment to make love,” and went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint.

One of the most famous love scenes in the history of motion pictures was suggested by just three sentences in the story that inspired it. In Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – a film made half a century ago that hasn’t lost an ounce of its power – John and Laura Baxter are a couple staying in Venice while he’s restoring one of its many neglected churches. He’s preoccupied with his work; she’s haunted by the recent death of their young daughter Christine. A chance encounter with two sisters, one of whom is psychic, gives Laura the peace of mind she’s been seeking for months, and before heading out for dinner that night the couple makes love, tentatively at first, then going all in, releasing the pent-up passion they continue to feel for each other, but have been unable to express due to their loss.

What makes the scene so iconic is the way Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford juxtapose John and Laura’s lovemaking with the two of them dressing afterwards, complemented by Pino Donaggio’s delicate score (the composer’s first). In comparison, the passage from Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 short story is almost perfunctory. It is also, like the rest of “Don’t Look Now,” told entirely from John’s point of view. In the process of adapting it, screenwriters Chris Bryant and Allan Scott expanded the scope, keeping John as the main protagonist, but giving equal weight to Laura as she follows up on her first meeting with the sisters so the one with second sight (who also happens to be blind) can attempt to contact Christine – a scene John is emphatically not present for. Their most important addition, however, is the opening sequence at the Baxter family’s country home, where the viewer witnesses the couple’s last few happy moments before tragedy strikes.

John is viewing slides of the church he’s preparing to restore while Laura looks up the answer to a question for Christine, who is playing outside in her bright red plastic mac while her older brother Johnny rides around the grounds on his bicycle. When Johnny runs over a pane of glass, his fall prompts the first jolt of his father’s latent psychic abilities, but it’s really triggered by Christine’s subsequent drowning, which John has a premonition about but arrives too late to prevent. (Donald Sutherland’s wail as he holds her limp body in his arms is one of the rawest expressions of anguish ever caught on film, matched by Julie Christie’s startled cry when she catches sight of them.) In all, a much more dramatic choice than the girl’s death from meningitis in du Maurier’s story.

Another key change is that John and Laura are not merely tourists on holiday; also, the time frame is moved from the height of tourist season to the brink of winter. This lends the city more of a chilly, empty feeling, making it much less welcoming and inviting to strangers. (The “Venice in Peril” sign at John’s job site sounds a similarly grave note of warning.) Giving John an occupation (and a reason to stay after he’s told to leave) also gives him a boss, in his case a perpetually preoccupied bishop who allows Bryant and Scott to address religious themes and contrast his belief system with John’s rejection of all things spiritual.

In the end, this blinkered attitude is what leads directly to John’s “bloody silly” demise (as he calls it with his dying thought at the close of du Maurier’s story). From the very start, when he spots someone in a red coat in one of his slides, to his final pursuit of the similarly clad figure he’s seen darting around the canals at night, John has been warned many times over how dangerous it is for him to stay in Venice. The chasm between what we see and what we understand can’t always be bridged, however.

When it was released in 1973, Don’t Look Now joined a small handful of Venice-set films that exploited its less tourism-friendly facets. Curtis Harrington’s 1953 short The Assignation followed a masked man in a black cloak through its canals, which were used by the robed villain in 1965’s The Embalmer to commit his murders undetected. Then came Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, based on a Thomas Mann novel from 1912. Now Kenneth Branagh has set his third Hercule Poirot film – an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, which takes place entirely in England – there. It’s doubtful, however, that A Haunting in Venice will match the one at the center of Don’t Look Now.

“Don’t Look Now” is streaming on Kanopy and is available for rent or purchase.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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