Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Don't Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)

(Originally posted on 20 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the all-time great opening scenes is in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The film begins outdoors, as little Johnny and Christine Baxter play in their parents' backyard after a rainstorm. Johnny rides his bicycle and Christine plays with a ball while the film’s theme music plays behind them. We then cut to inside the house, where their parents John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) sit in the living room. John inspects some slides, presumably for his job, and Laura skims over some books. On the surface, it's a normal afternoon in their lives.

But soon the tone changes. Johnny rides over a pane of glass, breaking it and puncturing a tire. Christine’s ball lands in a pond, and she goes in after it. John accidentally spills his drink on one of his slides, and as Johnny runs toward the house, John rushes out to the pond where Christine lies, drowned, at the bottom. John cradles her lifeless body in his arms and lets out an animalistic cry.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would merely be efficient storytelling, a tragedy that serves as the jumping-off point for the story. But there’s more going on here. Consider the moment right after John spills his drink — he looks at the slide and notices a red plastic raincoat similar to the one Christine wears. The spilled drink causes the colors to run, and when John notices this, the camera holds on his face, as though something is dawning on him (a masterful bit of acting from Sutherland). So while most people wouldn’t have had any clue that something was amiss until Johnny had made it back to the house, John bolts to the pond long before his son can fetch him.

I first saw Don't Look Now at a 24-hour horror marathon, in the middle of rougly a dozen movies. Horror marathons are a blast, but not the best context for a first viewing of a film as low-key as this. Due to the circumstances, I missed some of the subtleties of the scene, thinking maybe that John had heard his son's screams for help. It wasn’t until later in the film that I discerned the truth — that John was blessed with second sight.

The marvel is that the evidence is all right there in the scene. Observe the way Roeg briefly cuts from the breaking glass to John's face, sensing that something has happened. It's possible that John heard the shattering, but unlikely given that Roeg previously gave us an establishing shot of the Baxters' big backyard. By the time John takes the destroyed slide as a sign of trouble, all doubt is removed in the mind of the observant viewer. Roeg accomplishes this not by explaining what's going on, but simply by showing us John’s reaction. If you're paying attention, that’s all you need.

Unfortunately, John doesn't believe in psychic powers. After the story moves to Venice, John and Christine meet two English sisters who are similarly blessed. But while Laura takes to them immediately, John is dismissive. So, because of his refusal to acknowledge the gift of second sight in general, he's unable to see it in himself. Consequently, he’s unable to interpret the signs he sees (the feeling of unease in the tunnel, the vision of Laura and the sisters), and as such is powerless to stop his own demise.


Jason_alley2 said...

Brilliant! This movie is so great - practically the entire thing could be one great movie moment.

I just received the DVD as a gift last night, too, a Halloween gift from my Mom (along with "Birth" and the "Last House On The Left" remake!)

Steve C. said...

It also gets credit for one of the great "Boo!" moments in all of cinema, if only because the moment tells you it's coming, gives you time to steel yourself, then hits you and gets you to leap anyway.