hate-watching the oscars
bernard king: 50

by request: don't look now (nicolas roeg, 1973)

Tomás requested this one, not that I needed any prodding. As I have noted many times, in the early 70s, when I was a film major, Nicolas Roeg was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don’t Look Now) have never lost their appeal to me. I listed Performance at #10 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and could easily have listed Walkabout as well. I think Roeg started fading with The Man Who Fell to Earth, and by the 80s, I lost interest for the most part. Watching Don’t Look Now again, I wonder if the decline started there. Such a statement is unfair; Don’t Look Now is a terrific movie. But for me, it’s just a notch below the first two.

It is amazing and unsettling how Roeg manages to fracture our sense of the real world in Don’t Look Now. Kael wrote:

[O]ne may come out of the theater still seeing shock cuts and feeling slightly dissociated. The environment may briefly be fractured; for me ten minutes or so passed before it assembled itself and lost that trace of hostile objectivity. I don’t recall having had this sort of residue of visual displacement from a movie before …

I’ve told the story many times of our own experience when we saw Don’t Look Now when it was first released. As we left the theater (feeling as dissociated as Kael described), we walked past an alleyway, and down in the shadows, we saw a short person in a red coat. It was a holy-shit moment.

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure. The Venice of the film is as ominous as the Venice, California of Welles’ Touch of Evil. And as with Welles’ great film (#23 on my Fave Fifty list), Don’t Look Now isn’t quite worthy of everything Roeg throws at it. Welles transformed pulp into art, but art that showed off rather than illuminated. Roeg is very busy in Don’t Look Now, as he is in all of his best films, but here it’s at the service of a relatively mundane Gothic story. It isn’t difficult to construct elaborate analyses of Don’t Look Now, but seeing it this time, I felt like it was a technical masterpiece without much underneath. According to one source, Roeg considered Don’t Look Now to be “an exercise in grammar", and Roger Ebert, who originally gave the film a rather uninspired 3 stars out of 4, later re-evaluated it, praising the movie after watching it a frame at a time. He then called it “a masterpiece of physical filmmaking”.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Borges, who made an appearance of sorts in Performance, and whose sensibility is apparent throughout Don’t Look Now. And yes, the love scene (it’s a sign of how perfect that scene is that you don’t think of it as a sex scene, even though it was as explicit as any mainstream movie of its time). And I’d like to give a belated shout out to a couple of people who were influential in Roeg’s early directorial work. Antony Gibbs was the editor on Petulia, a film that helped introduce the kind of fractured editing we associate with Roeg (Roeg was the cinematographer on that film). Gibbs also worked on Performance and Walkabout. The legendary Dede Allen has credited Gibbs as a great influence on her own work as editor. Don’t Look Now was also the first Roeg film to feature Anthony Richmond as director of cinematography (Roeg had done his own in his first two films). Richmond worked many more times with Roeg, and his skills blend seamlessly with the director’s.

Don’t Look Now is #129 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Two years ago, in a poll of 150 British film industry professionals, Don’t Look Now was named the best British film ever. I think that’s pretty cool, even though I’m going with 9/10.



Thanks for reviewing it! I still think its the scariest movie I've ever seen. Something about that effect Kael talked about mixed with the nature of the loss(es) in the film. But I also wonder if the full effect only works on the first viewing for films like this, too. Suspense films are one thing. You can re-watch it and still enjoy it in a conscious way as you step back and think about the ways it created an effect for you before (or even again). But this is more than suspense, Its disorienting and shocking. The times I've seen it since I know to hold on in places to keep my feet under me. I don't know if that let's me see it as well (authentically?) as the first time.

Steven Rubio

You don't have to thank me ... I'm always ready to watch any of Roeg's first three movies. You make a good point about this one being more scary the first time through.

Charlie Bertsch

I actually like Don't Look Now best of Roeg's first three movies. It does scare me a lot. When I found myself in Venice for a single cold, foggy night in October, 2001, with hours to kill before my flight back to Frankfurt and then Phoenix, I decided to wander the city aimlessly. Predictably, I got lost. And predictably, I freaked out more than once. There's a quality to the sound there that's incredibly eerie, one that Roeg 's team does an amazingly good capturing. You can hear conversations from blocks away clear as a bell, while things much closer by seem mute.

Steven Rubio

I'm just impressed that you wandered around Venice! Closest I've come to such frightening behavior in a context related to this discussion is back in 2000, when I pushed past my usual inability to find my way around, studied maps and transit schedules, and got myself to the house that was used for external shots of where Turner lived in Performance.

Charlie Bertsch

I am usually very good at finding my way once I have a few basic markers to work with. But Venice totally undoes one's sense of direction. And time, to a degree, both in the narrow sense -- how long is it taking to make this walk? -- and the broad one -- historically. The Comfort of Strangers with Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson is another excellent Venice movie. And there's Death in Venice, of course.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)