Former cinematographer Nicolas Roeg firmly hit his stride as a filmmaker in the early 1970s. Following his co-directed debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), and his solo debut Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) continued what was a golden run for the director. Despite being his first foray into horror, it has become one of the most popular and respected films of the genre. Set in the beautiful Italian city of Venice, Roeg’s film, which premiered 50 years ago in London on 11 October 1973, explores in detail its moody canals and alleys, foggy with out-of-season winter melancholy.
Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now follows the grief-stricken John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Having lost their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) in a tragic accident in their garden, John accepts a commission to restore a church in Venice in order to escape the tainted home. While in Venice, Laura encounters a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom, Heather (Hilary Mason), claims to be psychic and can see Christine following them. As the atmosphere descends into the strange and macabre, John begins to see a figure wearing what looks to be Christine’s distinctive red coat. What is it that connects this mysterious figure with a spate of murders around the city and strange premonitions that seem to hint at John’s dark future?
In contrast to many films set in and around Venice, Roeg wanted to shoot a more authentic portrait of the city. He mostly resisting the tourist sites and clichés, instead finding his own unique collection of buildings and locations. In doing so, he and his cinematographer Anthony Richmond created one of most atmospheric and moody city portraits in cinema. Here are the film’s key Venetian locations as they stand today.
Chiesa di San Nicolò dei Mendicoli
Roeg configures Don’t Look Now around a number of Venice’s many beautiful churches. The most important is the church that brings John and Laura to the city. The church that John is working to restore is the San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, so we see a number of the streets around it – for example, this nearby bridge over the canal just outside.
When Roeg was filming, the church was genuinely being restored. Today, the restoration is complete, and it is one of the quieter spots in the popular city.
Many of the church’s features that Roeg focused on were genuine, including this sculpture above the door.
The outside of the church is pristine, as in the following shot with its “Venice in peril” sign on the wall.
Roeg focuses less on the interiors of the church, though he does shoot a handful of scenes showing the restoration in progress. In one shot, we see the church mostly hidden under tarpaulins and scaffolding.
Later, just before Baxter has his near-fatal accident as he inspects an artwork on the ceiling, Roeg shoots vertically and shows the church’s roof. Today, all restoration is completed and the results are incredibly beautiful.
Roeg wanted his Venice to be less focused on the more tourist-friendly sites and locations, yet we do see some of the city’s more famous buildings. For example, we get a view of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in one shot early on. The board it is shot from is part of a private hotel.
The hotel where the couple stay is also in the heart of Venice’s tourist district. It was the Hotel Gabrielli on the Riva degli Schiavoni, and we see shots looking at the street throughout the film. The hotel is currently closed and undergoing a huge renovation.
Finally, we see the Piazza San Marco, the city’s famed square, which is familiar from numerous Venetian films even to those who haven’t visited. Roeg only shows a fragment of it when John is walking, looking towards the water with the beautiful architecture of the Palazzo Ducale recognisable in the corner.
The first murder
A spate of murders plagues Venice during the Baxters’ stay. The couple first hears about them while travelling by boat along the city’s canals. Roeg frames the scenario around two bridges in particular, the first of which we see from the boat as it speeds forward along the water. The metal bridge is the Ponte dei Conzafelzi, though our modern day photograph is taken from the other side of it.
Roeg then looks back to the bridge he’d shown the boat briefly passing under before John notices the police investigating the murder. The stone bridge is the Ponte Minich.
The police are investigating a flat near the metal bridge. The little balcony leading to the flat is still there.
Finally, Roeg shows the waterway as the boat continues its journey. The route is incredibly distinctive, as the canal splits either side of the Palazzo Tetto.
Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Although it’s not the church John is working on, Roeg focuses his atmospheric interiors on the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. We first see a shot of this church via its famously ornate and detailed window.
When we eventually see the couple inside, Laura is saying a prayer. The interior is exactly how it was.
Laura later places a candle for Christine, and Roeg then shoots from the other direction.
The church is filled with hanging oil lamps, which have been converted to electric. Roeg shoots one of them near the altar, which is still there today.
John watches a group of people entering another part of the church. Unusually, his line about disliking the church was ad-libbed by Sutherland.
It’s in this part of the church that John sees the blind psychic; one of several times in which their paths cross. She’s on the other side of a barred section, which is still present, though the whole church has a much lighter atmosphere than in the film.
Finally, in a shot showing the scale of the church, John and Laura run out of the vast entranceway.
The sisters’ hotel
Don’t Look Now uses a number of hotels throughout, from the Hotel Gabrielli, where John and Laura are staying, to the two hotels where the sisters are staying. Their second hotel, which they move to in the latter part of the film, is the Hotel La Fenice et Des Artistes. We first see it when John is walking Heather back after her time at the police station.
Roeg provides a fuller view of the hotel’s exterior in a later shot once the film’s climactic chase sequence has begun.
Roeg films around the hotel in order to show the beginning of John and Laura’s run. He shoots the Campiello Marinoni o de la Fenice looking south, but cuts to a different street when John is chasing the red-coated figure.
A better view is provided when Laura runs down towards the bridge in search of John, showing the distinctive design of the wall, which is still present today.
The final chase
When John thinks he sees his daughter running through Venice’s streets, he gives chase. He arrives at a murky section of canal with a bridge. The bridge is the crossing of the Calle de Mezzo on to the Fondamenta S. Severo.
Running over some rickety boats to follow the figure, John enters a gated doorway on the other side of the water. It leads to the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, and is still recognisable today.
With Laura giving chase, Roeg also shoots the bridge from the other direction, giving a clearer picture of the canal and street.
The coda at San Stae
The last sequence takes place around one of Venice’s most famed churches: San Stae on the water of the main canal. A number of shots follow the journey of the coffin and mourners along the water before arriving at the steps towards San Stae itself.
Just before the credits roll, Roeg uses a shot looking out from the church towards the water as the family and mourners enter the church.
With the credits rolling, Roeg concludes his magnificent film with a view of San Stae itself, taken from across the water.
Stream hand-picked cinema
A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Get 14 days free