The end credits of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now unassumingly read “An Anglo-Italian Co-production.” The declaration is more spot-on than intended. The film had to make the distinction due to the dual filming locations in Hertfordshire and Venice, but the term applies to the structure and cinematic language of the story itself. Based upon British author Daphne du Maurier’s short story but steeped in a giallo brew, the story itself is one that horror has cornered the market in: grieving parents in foreign-to-us locales. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and wife Laura (Julie Christie) are in Venice, some time after the tragic drowning death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams). John has been commissioned to restore a church there; all the while, strange things occur as Laura meets a psychic woman, Heather (Hilary Mason), and a killer is on the loose through the Venetian streets.
Plenty of Don’t Look Now suggests that it’s Anglo-giallo or giallo-influenced, but there’s little interpretation as to how. To begin, the genre spawned in 1970s Italy. It’s name is the Italian word for “yellow,” referring to the color of the pulp fiction crime novels that inspired the wave of films. The indefinite nature of giallo makes it a distinct but malleable genre, and many iterations of the mystery-thriller can fall under the umbrella. The best definition comes courtesy of genre bard Ernesto Gastaldi. According to the author of All the Colors of the Dark and Blade of the Ripper, giallo is a “difficult-to-explain event and its rigorously logical explanation based on the evidence and details provided in the story.” It’s “opaque,” but allows for everything from police procedurals to upper-class whodunits to haute couture slash-o-ramas. They’re tied together by several motifs, to include black gloves or some stark fashion flourish, meandering plots with a twist in the third act, a flippant attitude towards the Catholic Church, fetishized murder and an unknown killer. Roeg departs from some of the staples and innovates with others, making his picture a wholly unique nightmare.
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Don’t Look Now’s world is a strange and beautiful place. The rabbit hole that John falls further and further into takes the form of labyrinthine alleys and vacant canals. The streets of La Serenissma are vast and endless, adding to the sense of being lost in a dream. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (along with the director, uncredited) shoots with all of the somber observation of walking past a cemetery at night. The city is both alive and dead.
Death itself is embroidered throughout the film. Bodies are hoisted up from the canal, gargoyles loom over the architecture and newsprint warnings of a serial killer on the loose pepper the narrative. John and Laura’s grieving processes (in response to their daughter’s accidental death) are polarized. Following Laura’s interactions with the strange sisters who claim to have seen Christine’s spirit, she is immediately open-minded toward the spiritual. John is having none of it, at one point shouting, “She’s dead! Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!” The interesting bit is that John possesses the gift of second sight — that much is clear from the film’s beginning. He gets a slide wet, causing a crimson bleed across the photo, which coincides with a premonition he has just as his daughter drowns nearby (the crimson, of course, comes from the red coat of the person whom he would meet in the third act). John’s failure to recognize his gift (worse, he rebuffs warnings from another clairvoyant) leads to his downfall.
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Supernatural elements can exist in giallo (if The Perfume of the Lady in Black or All the Colors of the Dark is any indication), but they will often turn out to be a dream or all part of the culprit’s elaborate scheme. As a rule, the symptoms may be otherworldly but the cause is secular. Roeg’s film leans toward the paranormal and away from the slasher structure that made up horror-giallo classics such as those of Sergio Martino (Torso; What Have You Done to Solange?). Multiple deaths occur, though they are mostly off-screen and peripheral to the story beyond the two main deaths that bookend the film. Laura is quick to believe the phantom cognition that Heather beholds. The warning is clear: “You must leave Italy.” John dismisses it, continuing a time-honored horror tradition of the logical male disbelieving the spiritual female, with disastrous results. As Roger Ebert describes him, “Few films so successfully put us inside the mind of a man who is trying to reason his way free from mounting terror.”
In fact, all of Don’t Look Now’s men, from John Baxter to the stern bishop to the skeptical policeman investigating Laura’s brief disappearance, are all analytical to the point of ignorance. The bishop is a singular character — in other giallos, he would be the avatar for a corrupt, hyopcritical Church. Lucio Fulci’s blasphemous 1972 classic Don’t Torture a Duckling set the standard by pinning its brutal child murders on a kindly priest (and got the director into hot water with the Church), echoing a growing post-fascist rebellion towards organized religion. In contrast, du Maurier and Roeg utilize Bishop Barbarrigo as a source of male antagonism towards the spiritually open women of the film (Laura and the Sisters). When asked by the Bishop if she’s a Christian, Laura uncomfortably answers as a Calvinist might: “I don’t know. I’m kind to animals and children.” The scene is steeped in unease; editor Graeme Clifford’s cuts jump from glance to glance at the holy man’s frock, his gold crucifix, his cap. It’s all layered with audible, terse dismissals on the Bishop’s part, waving away John’s concerns about needed restorative work on the local cathedral. A distrust envelops every moment with the clergyman, prompting John to quip that “I imagine he makes God feel less than immaculate.” Don’t Look Now is a textbook horror trope example of women open to the supernatural, and men in denial of it. John fails to interpret the signs around him with anything but the most rigid logic, until he makes the fatal mistake of following what he believes to be the ghost of his dead daughter down into the Venetian abyss.
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Those signs given to John are also given to the audience, and it’s up to both to interpret them. This is where Clifford’s immaculate editing works overtime to shape an entire visual language of the film, one where time is psychedelically connected and disparate. Past, present and future are intercut with each other; sunlight pours through the window of a (present) Venice hotel room a half second after rain pours into a pond outside the (past) house. A passionate sex scene is juxtaposed against removed imagery of the same couple getting dressed and ready to leave. Cinematic fetishes like water and the color red appear in fragments throughout the story, seemingly disjointed but all part of the continuum, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. It’s all in how John (and the viewer) interpret those signals. Standard horror giallo works with a more sensational formula, one that zeroes in on bare breasts, baroque settings and bloodletting in the most Grand Guignol fashion for maximum titillation. In the cutting room, Clifford insists upon leaving that commercial film reality for one that’s similar to the original book cover (which is seen in the film): “Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space.”
Don’t Look Now stands as one of the best iterations of the giallo film. It takes the best elements of the commercialized Italian psycho-thriller and presents them with a Hitchcockian flair. The film was different enough from its genre breathren to formally influence successive works.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.