Adapted from a novella by Daphne Du Maurier, in Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, who sadly died in November last year, delivers the first of two 1970s films that use a travelling red and white ball as an omen of dread so convincingly, that I shudder even now when they appear on screen.

Apparently, a remake of this classic has been in the works since 2015. When Donald Sutherland, who stars in the original was asked about it, his response was forthright: “Don’t embarrass yourselves by making it. Don’t embarrass yourselves by participating in it. It’s bullshit … Why do they do it? It’s just people wanting profit, trying to profit off the back of Nicolas Roeg, and something that’s very beautiful. It’s shameful. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

I too, am strenuously opposed to remake of this film and in fact of remakes in general  (as opposed to adaptations such as  Bradley Cooper’s fourth derivation of A Star is Born (2018)). To me, remakes epitomise all that is lazy and greedy about filmmaking: Poltergeist (2015), Fright Night (2011), The Fog (2005), are just three examples of seminal horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, ruined by such avarice and inauthenticity.

Studio Canal confirmed on their Facebook page last November that a 4K version of Don’t Look Now will be released this year. Finger’s crossed given Roeg’s passing, that integrity will prevail and like John, attention is paid to the restoration and protection of the original rather than than the desecration of it.

And – breathe.

I shall now leave you with this picture taken of me when I first heard about a possible remake, park the issue and return to the matter at hand.

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Part horror, part thriller and part love story, Don’t Look Now follows Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter: a couple very much in love, but also in despair as they try to move forward following a fatal accident involving their daughter, Christine. The Baxters’ path takes them from a Hertfordshire pond to the damp catacombs of Venice. In Du Maurier’s story, the Baxters holiday in Venice: an odd choice given the manner of Christine’s death. In Roeg’s version, the setting is explained by John’s engagement to restore a decaying Venetian church, aptly called St Nicholas, the patron saint of children. In the City of Masks, John and Laura seek solace and distractions through work, medication and therapy as they try to navigate their way rough the pain of surviving their daughter. When by chance they encounter two unconventional sisters (one a blind clairvoyant), John and Laura’s paths to recovery diverge and their bond fractures.

Don’t Look Now is beautifully shot by cinematographer Tony Richmond who Roeg took with him on set as Roeg’s AD initially for Dr Zhivago (1965) before Roeg was fired. Despite this, the partnership continued for a number of films including another of my favourites: Far From the Madding Crowd coincidentally, also starring Christie

Don’t Look Now is at its core a haunting film about grief, coming to terms with loss and two people trying to find their way back to each other in tragic circumstances. As Sutherland says: “it was a piece of work indelibly written by Nicolas Roeg. It’s about a family. It’s about death; about having a child pre-decease you. It’s about love. It’s about extra-sensory perception.”

It also contains one of the most famous – or as some would say, infamous – love scenes in cinema. In fact, when Don’t Look Now was first released theatrically in Ireland the love scene was cut altogether.

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But in 1973, this was the least of the island of Ireland’s relationship issues.

In March, of the 58.7% Northern Irish that voted, 99% determined to remain part of the UK in the first UK referendum about sovereignty and independence. Less than 1% Catholics voted in that Border Poll which might explain why, possibly in an attempt to demonstrate inclusion, some nine months later, the Sunningdale Agreement was signed by the British and Irish Governments as well as local unionist and nationalist representatives. The Sunningdale Agreement established devolution and local power sharing in Northern Ireland and cross-border cooperation with Ireland. But unionist and nationalist irreconcilable differences predictably emerged more entrenched than ever soon after – and the imitative was abandoned within six months.

Meanwhile over in the United States, although Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon would be having a tumultuous time with the release of his illegal telephone recordings that evidenced his attempts to cover up the Watergate Scandal, things were otherwise improving in 1973 as the last US soldier left Vietnam and the Supreme Court in Roe vs Wade overturned all States’ bans on abortion.

Given the dark and at times graphic content of Don’t Look Now and the release of The Exorcist also that year, it must appear strange to generations after X what the furore about that love scene in Don’t Look Know was all about.

Here’s my take on it.

By 1973, second wave feminism had hit its stride. Successes included in addition to Roe vs Wade, the formation of Olivia Records (a women-only independent record label) and Billie Jean King not only wining the Triple Crown at Wimbledon but also beating the self proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in a fight for equality on and off the tennis courts superbly dramatised by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes (2017). This was a time when male dominated and implemented societal and economic norms were being successfully challenged.

Perhaps then, a love scene portraying a man and woman equal in their nakedness and vulnerability, with John as the main pleasure giver, was a step too far in women’s liberation and the real reason for the controversy. Explanations that the scene offended  a then more conservative society fail to acknowledge that this was after all, the Golden Age of Porn when the Supreme Court in 1973, much to the delight of Hollywood generally and the porn industry particularly, narrowed the definition of obscenity in Miller vs California resulting in fewer prosecutions.

We are now in the fourth wave of feminism and the 2016 surge against inequality, division and intolerance gathers momentum.  Inclusion riders, equal pay amongst actors and actresses, anti-bullying and harassment policies implemented by “woke” studios and production companies are all steps in the right direction, but the entertainment industry and society as a whole still has a long way to go.  Whilst Ireland’s referendum in May repealed its strict anti-abortion laws,  Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment in the US in October as an Associate Justice risks Roe v Wade being overturned by a conservative majority now sitting on the Supreme Court

As King tweeted last year in response to Forbes’ recent publication that there were no women in the 2018 top 100 highest paid athletes:

Sutherland said that “Don’t Look Now, was a depiction of married intimacy. There’s a scene where they make love in the movie, and it’s not voyeuristic. You don’t watch people making love. What happens when you watch it is you remember having made love, having been in love yourself.”

As I unpack my red duffle coat in Brighton and reflect on the recent trip home to Belfast and 2018 more generally,  although not without its challenges I do feel energised and optimistic about 2019.  In fact, reflecting on Sutherland’s words about love, it occurs to me that focusing on optimism, love and loved ones is rather a nice way to ring in the new year.

Just not in Venice.

Featured Blog image: “Scorpios at the Helm” (c) Emma Topping
(c) Warner Bros

The first and arguably the best of a five-film franchise spanning some seventeen years, Clint Eastwood reunites with director Don Siegel in Dirty Harry (1971), their fifth film together. The success of this pairing and the mutual respect between Eastwood and Siegel is clear to see – including the tongue in cheek Easter Eggs: Siegel as a pedestrian in Dirty Harry and also as a bartender in Eastwood’s equally good Play Misty For Me, out earlier that year. Extra points for those who spot a reference to Play Misty in Dirty Harry.

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Eastwood and Siegel on set

Eastwood plays Inspector Harry Callahan who is, in the villain Scorpio’s words: a “big cop, works homicide” for San Francisco Police Department. This description barely scratches the surface to define who Harry Callahan is, but when Eastwood, all Ray-Ban Baloramas and nonchalantly chewing gum, saunters coolly over to Scorpio’s first victim at a roof top pool bathed in the heat of the late afternoon San Francisco sun, my immediate impression echoed Dirty Harry’s opening word: “Jesus!”

It’s been said that Dirty Harry was loosely based on the true crime and still open 1960s case of the US serial killer Zodiac. If this is true, then Eastwood’s Dirty Harry likely referenced that investigation’s lead detective Dave Toschi who died earlier this year, also portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in the 2007 film Zodiac and by Steve McQueen as the titular cop in his 1968 Bullitt.

Toschi has been described as “a colorful San Francisco police detective” and that certainly describes Inspector Callahan whose sheer stature and blatant disdain for authority dominates from his first frame. Dirty Harry is an authority figure with no respect for authority, a rule breaker with no time for those who break rules. A sure-footed, Magnum 44-wielding contradiction, until he encounters Scorpio, the latter brilliantly played by Andy Robinson. Of his experience on set, Robinson says: “A collaboration began…It was probably the most important and the most complete collaboration that I have ever had as an actor in film”[1]

Before Scorpio, Inspector Callahan is entirely confident of his righteousness and it’s initially compelling. When challenged by the Mayor and his superiors about how he can establish a rapist’s intent, for instance, Inspector Callahan’s casually blunt explanation remains one of my favourite deliveries of all time: “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross”.

But Inspector Callahan also cuts a self-isolating figure, devoid of empathy and attachment after a string of failed work partnerships and the death of his wife, killed by a drunk driver. As one of Inspector Callahan’s cheery cohorts (that he unkindly nicknames “Fatso”) says: “That’s one thing about our Harry, he doesn’t play any favourites. Harry hates everybody”. When Scorpio, a serial killer who on the face of it shares our inspector’s disdain for the underbelly of San Francisco, directly challenges Inspector Callahan to a game of cat and mouse, the line between the protector and sociopath, hunted and hunter starts to blur. What results is a deliciously pacey and searing drama, punctuated superbly by composer Lalo Schifrin’s thumpingly bassy Scorpio’s View and Scorpio Takes the Bait and the oh-so-70s siren wailing in Prologue, all coming together in the climactic The School Bus. After you watch the film, you’ll want to get the soundtrack. Do it. You won’t regret it.

Dirty Harry ignited my love affair for the franchise, Clint Eastwood and the cop/serial killer genre. Years after its release, in our early teens my sister and I would sit for hours, watching this franchise open mouthed with pencils poised, whilst balancing wooden boards on our knees upon which sat our A3 sketch books: art class homework neglected as we watched transfixed until the VHS tape crackled in protest, or Mom summoned us for supper.

Dirty Harry showed us a visceral, dangerous, seedy, intolerant and divided America that sharply contrasted with those saccharine PG versions that Dynasty, Dallas and Knot’s Landing served us. The man didn’t even eat a hot dog with his mouth closed and spoke with his mouth full, for goodness’ sake!

Of the franchise, Robert Urich says[2]: “These weren’t fairy tales, these were depictions of gritty, ugly reality…In truth, Harry spoke to a rising anger out there.”

Dirty Harry exploded on to the big screen in December 1971, just eight days after I was born. Of course, although I would only come to understand this later, the country where I lived was also no stranger to violence. Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland just four months prior to Dirty Harry’s release with Brian Faulkner, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, stating in so doing that we were: “quite simply, at war with the terrorist”. Operation Demetrius as it was known, involved in its first phase the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 342 detainees. The fact that internment was implemented by a government sympathetic to its Protestant majority and only two Protestants were detained in that first sweep did little to counter claims of arbitrariness. Division, resentment and anger intensified and atrocities were committed on all sides that year, including the Ballymurphy Massacre and the Balmoral Showroom Bombing.

And so in 1971 I set sail and the Baby Daze began. Lolloping and lurching with the sheer weight of attacks and counter attacks, my ship Belfast would carry me for the next eighteen years, with various deranged Scorpios at the helm maniacally singing “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!”

It was inevitable, then, that I would dream of new unconquered shores and each weekend I would rush to our local cinema or switch on the VCR and TV at home (having collected my new release tapes from Xtra-Vision) and lose myself for hours in the countless possibilities.

 

 

 

[1] Jerry Hogrewe’s 2001 retrospective documentary on the Dirty Harry franchise: Dirty Harry: The Original hosted by Robert Urich, a bad cop in the second Dirty Harry film: Magnum Force (and remember detective TV series, Vega$?)

[2] Dirty Harry: The Original (2001) (see above for more detail)

As well as recently painted black wooden stairs and a highly pleasing new molten metal effect grey herringbone stair runner, my soon to be completed hallway design will also feature framed black and whites of my favourite films, some of which recently featured here.

That design project sparked another enterprise that I’m going to develop concurrently as a progressive blog post and screenplay.  Over the next few months right here I will be reviewing those films and TV series that influenced me growing up, shaping my choices and contextualising then-current private and public events.

I’m really excited about this and think that it will be a unique way of looking at films and TV.  As this project evolves in to a body of work, I think it will be fascinating to see whether there are any particular genres or talent that I gravitated towards through the years.

I am hoping to get my first review to you in the next couple of weeks as I will be on a retreat in Cornwall with little else to do except watch movies and write.

But for now, I will tease with some predictions:

1970s – Baby Daze: back to where it all began.  Whilst some memories fade, The Red Hand Gang and Battle of the Planets burned bright like the Phoenix. Cherished Christmases in Ireland watching The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music after a seasonal feast pierce the misty recollections; as later towards the end of the decade, memories of quaking behind a cushion watching the likes of Alien, The Shining, Hallowe’en and Jaws still make me shudder deliciously.

1980s – Teenage Kicks: the Brat Pack generally and Rob Lowe particularly.  Tom Cruise in a shirt and little else, Richard Gere making us Breathless in An Officer and a Gentleman, with Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment and Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches making me cry truly ugly tears.  At night, that cushion returned with more horror fare: a lusty Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys, Terminator, The Fog, The Thing and Christine.  Meanwhile in TV: big hair, big shoulder pads and lots of Dynasty, Dallas, The Colbys and Knots Landing with a sprinkling of the UK comedic grit of The Young Ones indulging my rebellious side.

1990s – Adulting and Change:  visceral gangster and police crime thrillers prevailed, from the discovery of Clint Eastwood and his Dirty Harry franchise to The Untouchables, The Usual Suspects,  Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas and Internal Affairs.  Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction sliced through and packed a punch with a razor blade, shoot-outs and a Royale with cheese.  On TV, an unlikely US power couple emerged and I got to thinking about Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rubbing shoulders with the wonderful Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.

2000s – The Difficult Decade: coinciding with the popularity of mass-streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, serious talent followed the money from big to small screen and binge-watching was born: 24, The Wire, Spooks, The Good Wife, The Shield, Mad Men, Dexter, Six Feet Under, The West Wing – and Glee.  Studios also started to ramp up and roll out franchises, so although we saw diverse one-offs like Walk the Line, Amelie, Brokeback and a Single Man – we also heard of the Marvel Universe, The Twilight Saga, The Star Wars Story, Kill Bill Volumes 1, 2 and (possibly now 3) and the altogether scarier Final Destination and Paranormal Activity Franchises.

2010s – Kidulting and Hygge: it’s my remote and I’ll watch it if I want to, watch it if I want to, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Real Housewives franchise, Project Runway, Made in Chelsea and TOWIE, if I want to.  Elevated series offerings such as The Good Fight, Doctor Foster, Luther and Sherlock cleanse the cerebral palate and continue to delight. Big budget superhero film franchises dominate, captialising on the new normal of IMAX, 3D, 4D and 4K technology.  But in my new normal, it’s film  and TV with retro appeal such as Gone Girl, The Departed, The Town, Girl on a Train, Truth or Dare, It Follows and the marvellous Stranger Things that currently turn my world Upside Down.