A Film For May: Don’t Look Now

John and Laura are in Venice a city they’ve visited before to try and escape the pain of their young daughters death. One lunchtime they become aware of a couple of elderly women watching them intently. They find out that one of the women has second sight and can see their daughter. As Laura becomes increasingly friendly with the sisters, John becomes increasingly worried.

When a telephone call comes through from their son’s school in England saying that he is ill, Laura takes the first flight to be with him leaving John to follow with the car the next day. But going along the Grand Canal he notices a vaporetto going back to Venice and on board are the elderly sisters and Laura.

He returns to Venice, but Laura is nowhere to be found and John finds himself getting caught up in a train of strange and violent events.

Published in 1971 a film version followed quickly in 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. At only 50 pages the short story is characteristically ambiguous, we drop in on the couple in mid conversation at a cafe and never really find out very much about them, we’re just with them for this time in Venice. The film fills in the gaps giving them surnames and John a profession as an art historian, which gives them a reason to be living (not just visiting) Venice. Thus they know the city well and are known in the city. It also begins in England with the death of their daughter by drowning (rather than meningitis in the story), which means we see John and Laura living as an ordinary family.

I thought this worked really well, the happy family setting gives a sense of normal, peaceful life but by introducing flashbacks and flashforwards and the recurring motifs of water and the colour red right from the start, the sense of danger is immediate and constant.

Venice is shown as shadows and darkness, lots of eerie alleyways and waterways. The sisters Wendy and Heather, played by Clelia Matania and Hilary Mason are wonderfully creepy as they embed themselves in Laura’s life. As premonitions merge with the present John’s increasing confusion is exploited by the omission of subtitles, so that we (at least those of us who don’t speak Italian) feel as confused as he does.

As an exploration of grief and the psychological effects of grief I was perhaps more involved in the short story, but with its fractured style the film captured the gothic ghost story and how it played with the already disturbed minds of Laura and John brilliantly.

22 thoughts on “A Film For May: Don’t Look Now

  1. Ohhh, what fun to read this as both short story and film are among my favorites! (just re-read the first and watched the second last year, at the beginning of the pandemic). Like you, I thought the film did a wonderful job of using the Venetian setting to fully exploit the creepy, gothic elements present in the story. The next time I’m in the mood for a dark and ambiguous tale I plan of reading du Maurier’s “The Birds,” followed by watching Hitchcock’s movie.

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  2. How excellent, Jane. I always assumed that Don’t Look Now would be a novel. I’ve seen the Roeg film probably several times over my life – it has, in my memory, a really creepy 1970s feel to it that I adore. The same goes for The Man Who Fell To Earth. I shall have to visit the film again and read the short story. Who knows, I may even watch The Man Who… again.

    Thanks, Nick.

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    1. I remember you bought a ticket for this one! It is brilliantly 70’s which gives it now a lovely nostalgia as well (largely because of the hotel and restaurants!) I would definitely recommend it as a short story, I think they work well together, rather than one being better than the other. I didn’t realise The Man Who Fell to Earth was a book, Bowie has stolen it!

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  3. Lovely to see read your thoughts on this, Jane. I adore this film and watch it every year or so, just to remind myself of its blend of mystery and beauty. It also features one of the most tastefully filmed sex scenes in history, a beguiling movie on every level.

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    1. I chose not to talk about the sex even though it’s one of the most famous scenes, it’s difficult knowing how much to give a way isn’t it?

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  4. Loved both the short story and the film! It’s interesting how the same story captured in a different medium ends up having a different effect as you have pointed out so well. The visuals add a lot to the creepy unsettling ambience. Du Maurier’s fiction works very well transposed into a cinematic setting.

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    1. Yes, I think these two work really well together. The films opening is brilliant at setting the scene whereas I think if I had read it it would have felt quite pedestrian. But then I think John’s sense of urgency came across better in the book but the creepiness was fabulous – I won’t watch anyone jumping between boats in the same way!

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  5. For once a film I’ve actually seen, probably not many years after it came out! I remember enjoying this and finding it pretty creepy and I had a kind of mini crush on Donald Sutherland at the time, which also helped. I’m not sure whether I’ve read the story – if so, it hasn’t stuck in mind to the same extent as the film. It’s on my TBR though, you’re probably not too surprised to hear… 😉

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  6. I have never read the story nor watched the film. A deliberate choice for reasons I can’t fathom beyond that I’ve long been convinced that I’d be terrified. Certain films/stories which have that effect have the unpleasant distinction of remaining in my head for months – years! Recently though, I’ve come close to at least reading the story – it’s DdM after all! You’ve given me the gentlest of nudges in the right direction, Jane!

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    1. The book is certainly not as creepy as the film, I’m not good at horror and was a bit surprised that my daughter had put this on my list to watch, but it is very good film making – I’m not going to push you though, I understand what it’s like to be scared out of my wits watching a film!

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    1. I must re watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, you’re right it’s an interesting adaptation rather than being ‘the film of the book’ which is a much more all round experience – I think these two work really well together.

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