1973 was a hell of a year at the movies. Bruce Lee kicked ass in Enter the Dragon, Roger Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, and smalltown California got its romantic due in American Graffiti. There was Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were, Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick announced themselves as filmmakers to be reckoned with upon the respective releases of Mean Streets and Badlands, and Michael Crichton made cinematic history with technological advances in Westworld. Then there’s The Sting, which I’m always willing to defend in a battle to the death as Greatest Film Ever. But these are more than just great movies — these are unique and fresh-seeming efforts, influential to this day because they all pushed the envelope.
And though the horror genre received more than a few landmark films that year — The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, etc. — Nicholas Roeg’s grief-stricken terror Don’t Look Now might be the scariest. It’s certainly the most engrossing. Envelope-pushing apparently wouldn’t cut it for Roeg and Company, as the incredibly intense Venice-set thriller does more to explode the envelope into a zillion tiny bloodstained pieces. The story follows John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in the months following the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. Paralyzed by anguish, the couple retreat to Venice. Soon, they encounter a pair of women claiming to have a connection to the deceased Christine.
The symbolism throughout Don’t Look Now isn’t hard to spot. Christine’s bright red slicker recurs again and again throughout the film, and the color red seeps into the otherwise gray and brown framing of Venice with noticeable motive. Water is the other primary motif, from the little pond in which Christine drowns to the bath that Laura draws to the very liquid foundation of the city of Venice. Thematic parallels abound. A reflection in the Italian canal of someone in a red coat immediately brings back a reflection of Christine on the bank of the pond just before her demise. A streak of red across a photograph occupies the same space in the frame as Christine’s slicker in the very next shot. These liquid red parallels refuse to stop coming back, and that’s fitting for a narrative about grief. Grief, by definition, is a continuation of an initial spark of sorrow. It’s not permanent, necessarily, but Don’t Look Now posits that being touched by horror once — just once — means that now horror knows the way back in.
But Don’t Look Now is more than, say, a hardcore edition of What Lies Beneath; that symbolism isn’t present for the sake of symbolism. Christie’s Laura is confronted with these symbols to no small degree, but Sutherland’s John is particularly involved with them. He has a vision of red liquid, of death, just before the actual drowning occurs, and he suffers more visions as the film progresses. But even John isn’t the person these symbols seem designed to haunt. That distinction falls to someone else: you.
Perception is very much at the heart of Roeg’s fever dream, and while grief occupies the narrative space it’s perception that works thematically just behind the celluloid veil. The overt symbolism is there, of course — one of the mystery ladies gets something in her eye while the other one, the true “seer”, is straight-up blind — but the more subtle moments are what shifts the focus of Don’t Look Now over to the viewer. After all, that match-shot parallel of Christine’s reflection in the Venice canal and the backyard pond? Laura hasn’t seen that (she was in the house) and neither has John (his vision was of Christine submerged) — only you, the viewer, would be able to make that connection. Or, rather: that connection is only haunting you.
So many shots throughout Don’t Look Now show only a fraction of what they seem to — John’s eye peeking out from behind a statue, Laura reflected in the bathroom mirror, Christine approaching the pond through a vineland of trees, and a mysterious red-riding-hood figure that may or may not be Christine stalking through the foggy streets of Venice. Our proper introduction to the woman who claims she can see without eyes — to say nothing of what she sees, which is beyond the visible — takes place inside a dizzying reflection in a public bathroom:
Later, upon one of the many cuts back to the fateful backyard pond, the woman’s eyes are superimposed over the dark memory, now a part of it:
Again, though it seems as if John is suffering the same visions that the viewer suffers, the imagery of Don’t Look Now is constructed for our benefit (detriment?) and not his. The self-fulfilling prophecy wherein John’s blind following of his visions cause the visions to come true may become a realization for him at the moment of his death, but the ensuing hyperspeed montage of match-shots is for us. And, lo and behold: the blood that pours from John’s fatal wound joins those primary symbols of water and the color red.
John and Laura both exhibit impaired vision in different ways, and it might be said that they should have heeded the title’s advice and simply not looked at all. If we’re the real subject of the film, though, what does the warning mean for us? Should we close our eyes for the entirety of Don’t Look Now? The meticulous construction of the film is beautiful, sure, but also terrifying in that it leads to such dark corners of the mind. Should you watch it, or rewatch it? We’ll leave that to you…but just be careful, yeah? And wear your glasses.