Don’t Look Now (or, Watching Horror Movies About Venice, While in Venice)

Man walking along Venice canal in winter with some mist and suggestion of dread.
Don't Look Now, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie

Going from US Pacific time zone to Venice, Italy was a nine-hour time difference, and I was struggling. My journal states, in a mix of Italian and Spanish: “Io sono en una guerra contra il jet lag!” This meant sleeping half the day (not my style, but I simply couldn’t help it!) and staying awake until 4:00, 5:00 or 6:00 am.

I quickly ran out of guidebooks and other things to read. Italian TV (lots of game shows) is OK only in small doses. After a light skim through news from home (I tread lightly these days) and ruing the lack of activity by the Red Sox in the offseason, I was looking for ways to pass the long nighttime hours.

I remembered an old horror movie I’d watched once, Don’t Look Now, that took place in Venice in the winter. I had vague memories of Donald Sutherland, walking through foggy streets and catching glimpses of a red-coated figure who may or may not have been following him. I found it on YouTube (full version!) and proceeded to watch it on my phone in all its cropped, tinny-sounding glory.

Here’s the thing: I really liked it. Some flourishes feel a little over-the-top in the way that only a film from the 1970s can be (clothing and Sutherland’s facial hair, naturally; the volume of the score, and a sometimes overwrought cutting back and forth to red ink stains symbolizing blood). But the things it gets right are wonderful: tension, grief, scenes of art conservation within the church.

The best part was watching the city of Venice take the stage as an important character. Venice is a city of narrow alleys and canals; it’s entirely for boats and pedestrians, and it’s made up of glances. Indoors, yes, you can stand in a church and stare at artwork as long as you want, but outside…You catch glimpses of people before they turn down another alley…they cross your path up ahead and are visible for just a second before the wall blocks them from your view again…a boat passes by and then you’re looking at its stern as it heads away from you. That kind of looking is foreign to Americans, where country roads provide an approach and city blocks are long. We’re used to having the time to visually consider our surroundings. The movie really captures the sense of how things move in Venice – and capitalizes on it to generate confusion and tension – things floating by your periphery and they’re gone…on the water, passing by in alleys…you turn around and it’s just gone. Blinks, moments. Which is funny in a place that’s essentially not changed in 500 years.


I thought about this quite a bit when I painted about Venice.