I’m just back from a holiday in Venice, Italy. Even as someone who lived for a long time in Paris, I was smitten by its exotic and historic splendour. For one thing, all those canals offer several stunning locations for enjoying a bag of cans.
Like any cinema-loving ’80s kid, I insist on calling Venice, Italy by its American name of “Venice, Italy”, as heard repeatedly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The locals loved me for that.
And for most of us, our perception of Venice, Italy was created by the movies. Just one spot, St Mark’s Square, is like a Moonraker mini-museum: you can visualise Roger Moore driving a hover-gondola past a double-taking pigeon, see the clock face through which he ejects a henchman into a piano down below, and go into the actual Venini Glass shop that was the front for a poison-gas laboratory. (The shop assistant in Venini Glass had the tired and prickly air of someone quite fed up of being asked several times a day if “Drax” is out the back.)
While Venice, Italy is most famous for its canals and bridges, the city’s most cinematic aspect is its maze of dark, narrow backstreets. Our hotel, perfectly respectable and charming, was up the sort of shadowy alley your mother would warn you about. A simple evening stroll became a tense, thrilling adventure.
This darker, scarier Venice, Italy is the setting of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s macabre short story of the same name. It’s a fantastic horror-thriller and one of the best movies of the 1970s. (In the UK, Don’t Look Now was released in cinemas as a double-bill with that other British horror classic, The Wicker Man. What a double-bill!)
The locals of Venice, Italy probably aren’t fans of Don’t Look Now either. The story has grieving couple John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, both perfectly cast) repair to a grey, wintry Venice to deal with the trauma of their young daughter’s tragic death. While there they encounter a sinister priest, a tetchy police chief and a strange old lady who latches onto Laura and claims to have messages from beyond the grave. Soon John also starts having strange premonitions and incidents while out and about. Shifty-looking Venetians peep out from those shadowy corners and narrow alleys. Meanwhile, a mysterious knife-wielding serial killer is busy lowering the population…
Don’t Look Now is famous for three scenes. The start is a harrowing downer, as Baxter finds his daughter’s body in a pond. Around half an hour in is an explicit but expertly-made sex scene celebrated in urban myth as having been “for real”. (The mundane truth is that the two professional actors were simply faking it. It’s been known to happen outside of the acting community too, you know.)
And then there’s the ending: one of the greatest reveals in literature and cinema. In the more innocent times before “SPOILER ALERT!!” mania, Big Audio Dynamite’s cracking 1985 single ‘E=MC²’, which celebrates the films of Roeg, gives away the entire plot and ending. The video for the song even shows the reveal.
Every movie lover should see Nic Roeg’s four best-known films: Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and of the four Don’t Look Now is essential viewing. Sutherland’s natural tendency for over-acting is put to good use as his character goes through the wringer, while Christie — the bigger star and better actor — is brilliant. Here’s the trailer:
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