Sheila Merritt’s Retro Reads reviews books from years past that still merit attention. Peripherally tying in with Diabolique’s collaborative Italian Film Project, she now looks at Don’t Look Now, which is set in Italy.
Don’t Look Now (1973) is a film that is stunning on many levels, including cinematography, editing, and Nicolas Roeg’s directing. It also stuns in terms of plot; deftly turning the screws with the blade of a serial killer’s knife. The story is based on a must-read novella of the same name written by Daphne du Maurier, who also authored The Birds. It may be facile to respond “I know the storyline from seeing the movie, so there’s no point in reading it,” but brushing off the origin as superfluous would be a shame and a loss. There are fascinating differences between the novella and screenplay that put respectively distinctive spins on the action. In addition, Ms. du Maurier’s tale is a horror and suspense classic that features one of the best closing lines in genre fiction—no spoilers.
The author plants the tale firmly in Italy right from the onset. In contrast to the film version, Brits John and Laura don’t travel abroad because he’s accepted a commission to restore a church there. Instead they are already ensconced in a foreign local on vacation. The couple are attempting to emotionally mend from the tragic death of their 5-year-old daughter who has succumbed to meningitis. This differs from the movie, in which the child drowns. In du Maurier’s yarn, being away is helping with Laura’s healing process. She becomes more jocular while at a restaurant on the island of Torcello. At that venue she and John notice a pair of peculiar sisters sitting nearby. One of the siblings goes to the restaurant’s restroom, and Laura soon follows suit. A revelatory conversation ensues between the women, and when Laura returns to John at their table, she is serene and blissful. This contrasts to the corresponding scene in the film, where she dramatically faints in the dining room.
Laura has been told that their daughter has psychically communicated with one of the sisters, and is happy in the afterlife. John doesn’t accept it but, upon returning to Venice from the island, begins to think it may not be a bad thing: “It’s going to be all right, he decided, let her believe what she likes, it doesn’t matter, it makes her happy. The beauty of Venice rose before them, sharply outlined against the glowing sky, and there was still so much to see, wandering there together, that might now be perfect because of her change of mood, the shadow having lifted, and aloud he began to discuss the evening to come, where they would dine—not the restaurant they usually went to, near the Fenice theatre, but somewhere different, somewhere new.”
But John is given to overanalyzing, which leads to changes in how he perceives things. Such a personality makes it impossible for him to adhere to his good intentions regarding Laura’s belief. Like the waters in the Venetian canals, there’s a murkiness to his state of mind. He revises his opinion of the city correspondingly: “This is what the inhabitants who live here see, he thought. This is the true life. Empty streets by night, and the dank stillness of a stagnant canal beneath shuttered houses. The rest is a bright façade put on for show, glittering by sunlight.”
Underscoring the sinister potential of a city that seems more veneer than substance, the author plays up the disorienting side of Venice’s geography. It can confound, and does hamper John’s efforts to get a solid sense of his surroundings. This compounds his awareness of being a foreigner; an outsider completely recognizable as a tourist: “Why, he thought, was one’s British nationality always so obvious?”
The novella touches on extrasensory perception, but delves more intently into mundane perception. Though written in the third person, the narrative is told from John’s point of view. What he seizes to dwell upon and pursue fuels the action. His thought processes and subsequent interpretations are crucial to the plot. For example, when he sees Laura in her distinguishing red coat in the company of the sisters, at a time when she was supposed to be on her way back to England, he thinks the siblings have placed her under their influence. The stand out color of Laura’s coat is employed differently in the film. In the movie it is their daughter who wears a crimson slicker and, in Venice, a diminutive wearer of a similar red outer garment drives John to distraction.
Daphne du Maurier manipulatively misleads the reader as well as the focal character, brilliantly laying the groundwork for the unanticipated. Her famed novel Rebecca, turned into the eponymous screen masterpiece by Hitchcock, deals with an insecure newlywed who wallows in misconceptions. In an ironic twist, her jealous obsession turns out to be unwarranted. The intrinsic irony in Don’t Look Now is that John possesses underlying second sight, but his inability to accurately interpret what he sees ultimately proves disastrous.
Don’t Look Now was first published in 1971. It is a tale that culminates in a cascade of comprehension and terror. While the 1973 film accomplishes this visually, there is no deep character probing that lays the foundation for the climax. This isn’t meant to imply that one medium is superior to the other. It’s simply a reminder that du Maurier’s novella is a gem in its own right, and deserves its place in the horror hall of fame.