Don’t Look Now: Venice seen through a glass, darkly.


Venice is one of the most beautiful totems of world tourism. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 thriller, however, evoked the city’s brooding menace…

“One of the things that I love about Venice is that it’s so safe for me to walk.” This line, spoken early in Don’t Look Now, will be darkly shaded in irony by the end of Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 thriller, which exploits the unusual architecture and atmosphere of the famed Italian city to magnificently sinister effect. Adapted from a short story by the famed English writer Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now concerns a couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who travel abroad following the death, by drowning, of their young daughter Christine. The trip is meant to be restorative, but Venice’s intricate network of canals and waterways can’t help but recall Christine’s fate.

The bridges of Venice take on a menacing quality through Roeg's lens

The title of Don’t Look Now refers to the inability of the film’s characters to properly perceive their surroundings, and disorientation is the key to Roeg’s visual style. He uses Venice’s labyrinthine layout to suggest that the Baxters are lost in a fog of grief and confusion and the editing of the scene where the couple search vainly for a restaurant maps a maze of pitch-dark alleyways vibrating with heavily echoing footfalls. The director deliberately avoided shooting in Venice’s most recognisable areas. There’s only one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the world-famous St. Mark’s Square – and his decision to set the action in January, after the end of the tourist season, deepens the spookiness. It transforms one of Europe’s most romantic tourist traps into a ghost town, an idea rammed home when the Baxters walk through a hotel lobby where all of the furniture has been wrapped up in white sheets.

A crowd gathers here to watch as Laura is placed a water ambulance

From its first frame to its last, Don’t Look Now is a morbidly gorgeous movie: an alternate title could have easily been Death in Venice. John’s job involves restoring old buildings, and, in one of the film’s most unnerving scenes, he nearly falls off scaffolding while replacing a mosaic at the 12th Century church San Nicolo dei Mendicoli. The subtext to his near-fatal experience is that it can be hazardous to try and live in the past. And at times it feels like the canals are conjuring up monsters, including a mysterious, red-hooded figure darting amidst the footbridges, to dissuade the Baxters from overstaying their welcome. In the end, Roeg’s Venice is anything but safe – in fact, it’s downright dangerous. And yet Don’t Look Now feels very much like a love letter to its host location all the same: the final shots, describing a funeral regatta gliding solemnly through the waters, has exactly the sort of eerie, inscrutable beauty that the city deserves.

Roeg captured Venice before the peak of the tourist madness

Inspired to book a trip to Venice?