John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) was sitting studying slides from his work as a restorer after his Sunday lunch, while his wife Laura (Julie Christie) lounged nearby in the front room, poring through books to find out the answer to a question their daughter Christine had posed about why surface ice on frozen ponds is flat and not curved. The little girl is playing outside in the Winter cold with her brother when she becomes entranced with the pond in the grounds of their country cottage, and edges too close to it. While this is happening, John accidentally spills drink on a slide, which seems to trigger something in him as he moves towards the door, outside and rushing now to the pond where he wades in to try and save his daughter. But it's too late: Christine has drowned.
The deliberately off-kilter Don't Look Now began life as a Daphne du Maurier short story and became a film which has puzzled its audiences ever since (du Maurier loved it), under the direction of Nicolas Roeg who was continuing his highly individual style into the nineteen-seventies, where experimentation was more welcome in the mainstream than it is today. Though this wasn't a blockbuster, it became a popular talking point among those who had seen it and word of mouth urging others to check it out to see if they could explain it, and most of all be hit with the shock ending, meant it was a work whose reputation served it well down the decades. There was another aspect which received interest, maybe more, and that was one of Roeg's typically frank sex scenes.
This happens once the Baxters have travelled to Venice so John can throw himself into his latest project in an attempt to cope with the grief of their loss, the son left behind at boarding school. But that drive to prove life must go on is somewhat scuppered by the overwhelming sense of forces beyond our ken either guiding us or determined to trip us up, and the feeling of helplessness conveyed by watching the central couple try to live in the mundane world amounts to one of the creepiest of all horror films from this decade. That was not wholly down to the ending, though it is one of the freakiest denouements ever captured, but more down to the manner Roeg kicked off the bleak story with a wrenching tragedy, and never allowed the pressure of death to let up for the whole two hours.
While John and Laura are in a wintry Venice, off season and inhabited by nobody much except the locals, she happens to notice a middle aged pair of sisters watching them in a restaurant and events contrive to have them meet. They are the carer Wendy (Clelia Matania) and her sibling Heather (Hilary Mason) who is blind but also has the ability of second sight, and she claims she has sensed a little girl in a red raincoat sitting between the bereaved couple, which intrigues Laura yet John thinks they are making it up, wishing to move on from his loss and not consider any of what he terms "mumbo jumbo". However, what if he holds the psychic power himself, or it could be the spectre of death is so overwhelming that as events build to their disturbing climax that he cannot help but experience echoes of both past and future?
The love scene was important because it is the first time the Baxters have been intimate since Christine died, which is also the reason it comes across as so personal it's almost as if we're intruding on their privacy, a mood underlined by the manner Roeg intercuts the sex with shots of them dressing in a relaxed mood. This also established the bond between them, as they may have suffered but that does not mean their marriage has broken down, which in addition renders the inevitable conclusion to their story all the more melancholy. The photography conjured up such a vivid quality of place that even if you'd never been to Venice you'd feel as if you had, and that only makes for an uneasier watch for the city has the reputation of its aesthetic pleasure yet here we are seeing it in decay, sinister and menacing since we have been told there is a serial killer at large. When John begins catching sight of a red-coated figure he is both unnerved and hopeful that he can reconcile with his deceased daughter, but there's a haunting, horrible comedy to that punchline in a chiller classic. Music by Pino Donaggio.