Falling Don

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“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head” — statue outside the Church of St Nicholas in Venice, where DON’T LOOK NOW was filmed. Forty years on and they STILL haven’t got a head on that thing.

A story from Philip Kaufman’s commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — he was filming the climax, with Donald Sutherland gamely staggering around a catwalk high in the air in a big greenhouse, and a mutual acquaintance approached. “Is that Donald Sutherland up there?” Kaufman affirmed that it was, and his friend, with a note of panic, cried “Don’t you know he’s The Clumsiest Man Alive?”

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This makes Sutherland’s cameo as “The Accident-Prone Waiter” in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE much funnier, but adds a frisson of terror to DON’T LOOK NOW and several other Sutherland films. As Sutherland described it to Mark Cousins in a TV interview, the scene in DLN where he dangles from a rope at ceiling level in a cavernous Venetian church was originally going to be performed by a stunt man. But, he says, rather apathetically, the stunt man “wasn’t happy about something” and in the end Sutherland volunteered and did the dangling himself. He had a kirby wire running down his sleeve to a harness, securing him so he couldn’t actually fall.

Years later Sutherland is talking to another stuntman, who congratulates him on the awe-inspiringly dangerous sequence. Sutherland demurs: “I was quite safe, I was fastened to a kirby wire…” “But you were going like this,” says the stunt man, making a twirling motion with his index finger to indicate the way Sutherland spun helplessly on his rope. “Yes, I was.” “Well, when you go like that on a kirby wire, the kirby wire breaks.”*

Sutherland actually had premonitions of doom on the movie, feeling that it was such a tragic and death-haunted tale, somebody might actually have to die while making it. Fortunately for him, that was silly.

But one of the strange pleasures of re-watching the film with students — and it unlocks fresh pleasures each time — is the number of times poor Donald falls on his ass, or nearly so, during the show. Nic Roeg has him staggering along beside canals, blundering over barges, and straddling ledges fifty feet up… It’s all a touch ungainly. Julie Christie, meanwhile, negotiates rowing boats and the like with the grace and dexterity that only the Rank Charm School can instill.

What else — ?

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Odd framings, like this shot which picks up a sinister sign-post as a plank glides across the lower edge of frame like a shark’s fin.

Constant communication trouble: Sutherland speaks fluent Italian to his work crew, but whenever faced with an emotional question or a conversation with a woman, his language deserts him. “English… English…” he pleads abjectly.

Julie Christie sees a police sketch of one of the two sisters (vacationing from Scotland, though their accents are VERY English) — “It doesn’t really look like her.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Inspector Longi (how I’d love a whole series of films about his unsuccessful cases! Maybe he could team up with Harvey Keitel’s Inspector Netusil from BAD TIMING to fight crime ineffectually across Europe). He means, “It doesn’t matter since no crime has been committed and we’re no longer seeking her,” but what Christie understands, from her nonplussed expression, is obviously “It doesn’t matter if our sketches don’t resemble the people we’re looking for because that’s not their purpose.” Whole worlds of mystery open up at that thought.

The first view of Julie –

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This prefigures the film’s climax, which hinges on that uncanny lurch you feel when you approach somebody you know and they turn around and it’s not them. I first got this with a woman who wasn’t my mum in the supermarket when I was small. (“His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed.” ~ Chickamauga, by Ambrose Bierce.)

I was in Venice recently, making a side-trip from Pordenone on a free day after the Silent Film festival had ended, and I visited Donald’s church. It’s still there, looks the same, but doesn’t have any mosaics that I could see. They don’t let you take pictures inside as they fear the camera will steal away the Holy Spirit, I guess, but I snapped away outside. And no, I didn’t see any little figures in red macs. Fiona suggests the Venice town council should hire little people to dart about and peak from round corners wearing the appropriate plastic attire. She’s right — I think you’d only need about seven at a time to cover the city. You wouldn’t want them to become commonplace or anything.

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Donald sees a glove on a window ledge. I saw a segment of orange.

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*Sutherland has another great story about shooting Bertolucci’s 1900 which left him with concussion and a half-severed ear. I can tell it in the comments section if there’s interest.

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23 Responses to “Falling Don”

  1. Please do tell the 1900 episode!

  2. Oh, and there’s also the Casanova story…

    Firslty, though. Berolucci required Sutherland’s fascist character in 1900 to prove his villainy by strapping a cat to a post and head-butting it to death. A prop cat containing a bag of blood was provided, and Donald’s simple task was to charge into it and ram it with his skull.

    Charge. Wham. The bag doesn’t burst. “The actor hit the cat incorrectly.” Again. No. Donald feels a headache coming on.

    After multiple tries, the effects department procure two tacks, and position them within the cat so they will pierce the baggie when struck by an outside force such as Donald’s head.

    Charge. Wham. Splat!

    Donald turns to the crew, dripping in Kensington gore. “OK?” They look at him in horror. No. Not OK. He has two thumb-tacks protruding from his forehead.

    After something like sixteen takes, Bert gets what he wants. In the bar after shooting, Donald is trying to explain to Gerard Depardieu what he had today. Better yet, he thinks, I’ll SHOW him. Now, Donald already has concussion but doesn’t know it. He lines up on a pillar and charges it. But the mirrors in the bar have him confused. He smashes into a mirror and when he straightens up, his earlobe is hanging off. Multiple stitches.

    Is there a lesson here?

  3. Did Sutherland break off that statue’s head? He was in another film with a headless statue, Heaven Help Us. Maybe he can’t help but decapitate statues and the filmmakers are forced to work it into the plot.

  4. Pwaha! Aw, I wish I’d known you were going to Venice. We went last January and have since felt duty bound to recommend the Venice Museum of Natural history to every future visitor as possibly the greatest exhibition/installation/theatrical space on Earth. Seriously. Next time.

  5. He could also be graceful.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    Casanova story! Come on, Casanova story!

  7. Simon: noted!
    Chuck: if Donald decapitates statues, I expect it’s accidental.
    David E: he is indeed elegant in that scene, which he credits with transforming Fellini’s conception of the film. That’s why the mechanical woman has to return at the end of the film.

    On Sutherland’s last day on Casanova, which had been a tough, emotional job for him, he left the crew in a big field and went to get changed. When quite far away, he attempted a grand bow with a sweep of his cape, but the wind caught his costume and he fell down in the mud. He proceeded to waddle wetly back to his dressing room. Story from John Baxter’s Fellini bio.

  8. Novecento (whichis the correct title not 1900, in Italy that means The 20th Century which is what the movie’s title should be) is one of the great films of the 70s and Sutherland’s fascist is really scary and evil there. Casanova is his best though, one of Fellini’s best too.

  9. The first time I ever watched Don’t Look Now was on a laptop in Venice. Fell asleep immediately afterwards without a spot of bother, only to learn the next morning from some Australians I was sharing the hostel room with that I’d been screaming blue murder in my sleep.

    Still, the Don’t Look Now church is lovely, and about as off the beaten path as is possible to get on a floating city.

  10. Two fascinating things about Casanova One is that Fellini didn’t want to make it. He wanted to make a film of some sort(perhaps the legendary Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna) but the producers he was dealing with wanted Casanova — an individual Fellini said did not appeal to him at all. So he forced himself to make it — and I think the fact that he had to force himself gave the work an original character quite different than most of his other films apart from City of Women (which is in some ways a sequel)

    The other thing is the problems than ensued when a gang of fascist broke into the lab hoping to abscond with the dailies of Pasolini’s Salo. They grabbed some of that but also took a chunk of Casanova. Pasolini found it easy to re-shoot what had been lost, but not Fellini. This was a costume spectacular after all. As a result he had to cancel a sequence he’d planned to shoot with Sutherland and

    Barbara Steele.

    (Big Sigh)

  11. I like Novocento a lot, preferably the long Italian version. Bertolucci envisaged Sutherland as a provincial Macbeth, though he said this was really artistic license, since “the one thing fascism lacked was a tragic dimension.” He sees it as comic opera next to Nazism.

    Peter, I love movies that act on our unconscious minds!

  12. Fellini had used the offer of a Casanova movie to tempt backers, who believed such a film from the maker of La Dolce Vita would be a sure-fire smash. He seems to have used Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon as similar bait, without necessarily ever intending to make them. But he got trapped into this one, I think as a result of budget overruns on Roma.

    Resigned to his fate, he sent for copies of Casanova’s journals. His response, when they heaved the ten volumes into his office, “Oh the shit!”

  13. I believe he was sincere about “Mandrake.” Marcello is costumed as “Mandrake” in Intervista.

  14. That one seems odd enough to have been sincere. Even Flash Gordon seems sympatico enough, and his influence is felt in the Mike Hodges masterpiece. Interestingly, Hodges borrows the cellophane sea idea from il maestro for his Squaring the Circle, and then directed the English-language version of And the Ship Sails On at Fellini’s personal request. I wish that version were available as an alternative on the DVD so we could hear Freddie Jones.

  15. I downloaded Roeg’s memoirs, The World Is Ever Changing, recently but couldn’t make any headway with its disjointed ramblings. Has anyone else given it a try? What’s your verdict?

  16. I’m very keen to ramble through the ramblings of that magnificently disordered mind, but haven’t got the right kind of digital device for the version with clips, which is apparently a richer and more coherent experience than the book. Should’ve asked for it for Christmas though.

  17. Fellini’s CASANOVA is a very cold and detached film. The spectacle and circus stuff that he dealt in his earlier films had a warmth to it but here its just cold and empty and devoid of splendor. In a way the movie is similar to his color short for Boccaccio ’70, which is a key Fellini movie, there that critic gets seduced and destroyed by a billboard, here its Casanova and the automaton.

    Pasolini’s SALO was also pretty heavily imagined though that’s more openly fictional than Novecento which tries to tell this epic story of a class struggle. Salo definitely crosses fascists with the Nazis. I was seeing interviews Bertolucci was giving for the BR release of Salo and he talks of how that film upset him at the time, because of its pessimism and the loss of belief in an alternative system but now he sees it as prescient.

  18. And speaking of Ornella. . .

  19. John Seal Says:

    Recently watched Cronenberg’s The Brood and was really struck by how his Scary Small People seemed to have been informed by Don’t Look Now’s. Not sure why I never noticed that before. It’s still a good film.

  20. It HAS to have been an influence. I want to know h=who outfitted the children of rage with their winter gear.

    The shot of the two kids on the snowy roadside is the most evocative image in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, for me. Because it’s what we know that makes it strange, not anything we see.

    Casanova was supposed to be completely cold and contemptuous, but Anthony Burgess kept smuggling Giacomo’s more intellectual side in, and then when Fellini saw the mechanical lover fall in lover with his mechanical woman, he felt more compassion for the character.

  21. Mmm. Casanova. Here’s a spare tuppence-worth of wee mind-sparks which were set off by that name (and Sutherland’s):

    Curiously, I saw the title ‘Falling Don’ a few moments after pulling from the shelf, and putting on my desk, my dusty copy of John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, a desultory exploration of aspects of Venice. (And in all, a less successful but still intriguing follow-up to Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil). There’s a nice little anecdote about Woody Allen in chapter-something-or-other.)

    The book prompted thoughts about Venice-set movies (the obvious ones) then about Sutherland, then Casanova (gosh I can give Molly Bloom a run for her ruminations, yes I say yes) and I was reminded of Fran Fullenwider, of whom I’ve spoken to you before (she and I shared a house in NW6 years ago), and I was reminded further that one day in the mid-1970s she was called for an interview with Fellini, who was in London looking to cast Casanova, and when Fran returned home from the meeting she reported that – intriguingly – she had *shared* the audition/interview with Marianne Faithfull (“in a really naff frock.”) Fran was quite saddened that the Great Man had wanted Marianne to tell him all about that infamous o/d in Sydney- why had she, how had she, where was she at the time what was she thinking and feeling,… Fran thought it all a little demeaning (to Marianne) and felt Faithfull had been unnecessarily hassled.

    Neither actress was cast in Casanova. A pity. Marianne would have been an intriguing choice, although she wouldn’t of course have passed muster with any movie’s insurers because of her colourful relationship with pharmaceuticals – three years earlier she had been replaced (by Gillian Hills) on Demons of the Mind for that very reason.

  22. Italian productions may have had a different approach to insurance, of course. In a country where disasters are kind of standard practice, what’s an OD or two between friends? (Italian directors routinely went for two good takes, one for the movie and one for the lab to screw up.)

    Dudley Sutton: “He cut all me lines out, but I’m still in there.”

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