Tuesday, December 25, 2012

NIGHT WATCH 1973

Late in the summer of 1973, just around the time I (and most of America) was in the throes of a pop-cultural mania sparked by the powerhouse release of The Exorcist, the delectably tense drawing-room thriller, Night Watch, was sneaked into Bay Area theaters without benefit of fanfare or much in the way of advance publicity. 

This was at the height of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s waning relevance as both movie stars and tabloid darlings, theirs having been a ten-year reign of bad publicity, bad behavior, and bad films together (the exquisite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? notwithstanding), culminating in a final tandem screen appearance in the 1973 two-part TV-movie “Special Event” prophetically titled: Divorce His – Divorce Hers (their 10-year marriage would end the following year). Like most everyone else at the time, I had grown pretty tired of hearing about “Liz & Dick”- Hollywood’s answer to Orthrus, the mythological two-headed beast - whose conspicuous private life excesses had long overshadowed any merit I once accorded their professional talents. Off my personal radar for some time, I hadn't seen Elizabeth Taylor in a movie since 1968’s Secret Ceremony (which I loved), but when I saw the newspaper ad for Night Watch, I knew I HAD to see this movie.
I'm sorry, but how was it possible for anybody to resist this image of a windswept, heavily-mascaraed, Liz Taylor melodramatically clutching her head while lightning flashed overhead and two shadowy figures appear in spooky silhouette in the windows of a creepy Gothic mansion? OMG! This is marketing perfection! I practically camped out in front of the theater waiting for it to open.
Based on playwright Lucille Fletcher’s (Sorry, Wrong Number) moderately successful 1972 Broadway play which starred Joan Hackett and future Taylor co-star, Len Cariou (A Little Night Music - 1977), Night Watch, on the surface, treads territory familiar to those acquainted with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) or any of those “Is she crazy or is she being driven crazy?” thrillers like Midnight Lace (1960), Diabolique (1955), and Sudden Fear (1952).
Elizabeth Taylor as Ellen Wheeler
Laurence Harvey as John Wheeler
Billie Whitelaw as Sarah Cooke
Idle and wealthy Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), the neglected wife of loving but desperate-to-prove-he’s-not-living-off-her, workaholic husband, John (Harvey), is still, after eight years, haunted by memories of her first husband’s death in a violent automobile crash that also took the life of his 20-year-old mistress. After suffering a crippling breakdown, Ellen has since been plagued by nightly bouts of insomnia and subtly treated as a mentally fragile time-bomb by both her husband and her visiting girlhood friend, Sarah (Whitelaw). On one particularly stormy night vigil with too little sleep and too many inner demons to battle (and there are a LOT of rain storms in this London-based thriller), Ellen glances out the window to the abandoned house across the courtyard and sees, in a flash of lightning and flurry of storm-tossed shutters, the horrifying image of a man with a slashed throat propped grotesquely in a wing-back chair situated close to the window. When a police search of the old dark house fails to unearth even a trace of habitation, let alone evidence of foul play, John and Sarah’s concern for Ellen’s mental state intensify while Ellen herself grows ever more convinced that what she saw was real.
I don’t tend to think of myself as someone drawn to a particular type of film, but truth be told, I confess to having a decided weakness for suspense thrillers. If you’ve been a fan and seen as many movies as I have, comes a time when a certain over-familiarity with certain narrative tropes and plot devices can undermine the ability of a film to take you by surprise. As movie genres go, the suspense thriller (and its attendant sub- categories: the psychological thriller, the mystery, the whodunit, the erotic thriller, the sci-fi chiller) is one of the last mainstays of the unanticipated for a veteran film fanatic like myself, and I especially relish it when, as in the case of Night Watch, a movie so structurally conventional can have so many sinister surprises up its sleeve.
"That's what the watchers of the night are for. Things that in daytime are unknown and unremembered."
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As a lifelong insomniac familiar with the kind of subtle disquiet that can creep into the soul in the wee small hours of the morning, I have to say first and foremost I love the film’s title. To “Night Watch” is a perfect description of what it feels like to be wide awake when the vast majority of those around you are asleep and you’re standing metaphysical guard against your id playing havoc with all those subterranean thoughts and repressed terrors your ego holds so reliably in check during the daylight hours. Secondly, I found myself totally caught up in the way Night Watch uses the conventions of the modern Gothic to construct a persuasively suspense-filled thriller built around the uncertainty of perception. This film is full of games of truth and illusion more deceptive (and far deadlier) than any of those employed by Albee’s George and Martha. 
"If the mind is obsessed enough with something it can actually produce an image on the retina. It has a name...it's called an 'eidetic image'."
PERFORMANCES:
With but a few exceptions, most of my favorite actresses have tried their hand at the suspense thriller. Meryl Streep – Still of the Night; Audrey Hepburn – Wait Until Dark; Sandy Dennis – That Cold Day in the Park; Julie Christie – Don't Look Now; Jane Fonda – Klute; Lauren Bacall – The Fan; Susannah York – Images; Faye Dunaway - Eyes of Laura Mars; …even such unlikely candidates as Goldie Hawn (Deceived) and Twiggy (W). In this, her sole foray into the world of scream queens, daggers, and red herrings, Elizabeth Taylor is to the manner born. Movies like this fall apart if the audience is unable to identify with or relate to a character's dilemma. Elizabeth Taylor brings a considerable amount of verisimilitude to her character, making her crumbling mental state both believable and compelling. She is given solid support by the talented, exclusively British cast, but Taylor holds the thing together by making her terror seem debilitatingly real. But as an actress who has, in the past, introduced to the screen characters created by Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Carson McCullers, one can’t exactly say Elizabeth Taylor is a stranger to hysterics.
Cracking Up
Reunited with Butterfield 8 co-star, Laurence Harvey (only 45 at the time but exhibiting the wasting effects of the stomach cancer that would take his life only four months after the film’s release) Taylor is simply terrific as the high-strung witness to a possible murder no one believes really happened. Like late-career Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, late-career Elizabeth Taylor is often a matter of taste. Those having a problem with her impossible-to-ignore star persona, fluctuating weight gain (sometimes mid-film), designer caftans and unique vocal style (she’ll insert pauses and stress emphases in the most unexpected places) are not likely to be persuaded by her work here. Me, I think she’s the top, and in Night Watch she gives a spellbindingly intense performance that's revealed to be even sharper and subtler upon repeat viewings.
The icy reserve of Billie Whitelaw (who would later terrify as the menacing nanny, Mrs. Baylock, in The Omen) contrasts effectively with Taylor's more earthy vulnerability.
Suspiciously conciliatory neighbor Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang) directs Ellen's attention to something in the window of the abandoned house next door.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
At first glance, Night Watch looks like a derivative catalog of hoary horror film clichés. And, well…it is. There’s the woman in distress; the incessant thunder storms with well-timed lighting flashes; the old dark house; the ludicrously skeptical friends and annoyingly unhelpful police; the assortment of suspicious characters with dubious motives; the non-stop entreaties to “calm down” or “get some sleep”; they’re all there.
Bill Dean as Inspector Walker
It’s only later when you start to realize how much your expectations have been intentionally manipulated does it begin to sink in how cleverly Night Watch works audience familiarity with the conventions of the genre to it its advantage. It's a tight, well-paced thriller that deftly builds its suspense by playing with the audience's mind as cleverly as it plays with that of Taylor's character. 
Things That Make You Go Hmmm
Why would someone be digging a hole in the garden in the middle of the night? Night Watch takes fiendish delight in throwing traditional horror film elements into the mix of a suspense thriller.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I was 15 years old when I saw Night Watch, and even after the nerve-wracking horror of The Exorcist, the PG-rated Night Watch scared the hell out of me. Seeing it now some 30 years later, not only does it really hold up as a crackerjack thriller that plays surprisingly fair with its surprises and twists (it’s one of those rare thrillers – like Hitchcock’s – that keeps paying dividends the more you see it), but there’s the added bonus of the whole 70s feel of  it. 
Liz, not having an easy go of it
For those uninterested in taking either Elizabeth Taylor or the film seriously, Night Watch has much to recommend it in camp appeal for the terrifically glossy 70s look of the whole thing. There's Taylor at her 70s diva best, photographed flatteringly and sporting a host of conceal / reveal 70s finery. There is much to take in visually, from big hairstyles, glam makeup, bulky jewelry, turtlenecks, positively enormous sideburns, wide ties, and even an ascot.
Though rarely referenced and seen by very few, Night Watch is one of my favorite thrillers, and I'd recommend it to anyone with a fondness for the magnificent Elizabeth Taylor, or for anyone interested in atypical curios from this favored actress's career.
Happily, the Warners Archive Collection DVD has been beautifully remastered and is a huge improvement over the exceedingly dark, pan and scan VHS release from several years back. Scenes once taking place in near total darkness (those who've seen the film know what I mean) are startlingly clear. Also, and I might be mis-remembering here, but I thought there was once a terrible George Barrie / Sammy Cahn theme song played over the end credits that has since been removed (hooray!). I see the song exists in the IMDB credits (title: "The Night Has Many Eyes") and I seem to recall it being sung by a Tom Jones sound-alike. In any event, my recollection of it was that it was 100% not the kind of MOR Sinatra-esque ditty you wanted to be played after the jolting finale of this thriller. It puts me to mind of Henry Mancini's equally mood-killing and inappropriate "love theme" from Wait Until Dark.
Night Watch reunited Taylor with her Butterfield 8 (1960) co-star, Laurence Harvey.
Note: I usually try to mix up the kind of films I write about each month, but in looking over my posts for December, I'm pretty sure the preponderance of thriller / suspense films represented this month (Carrie, Eye of the Cat, Night Watch) is in direct response to all that sugary, family-oriented programming one is subjected to on television during the holiday season. However, the highlighting of two Elizabeth Taylor films (A Little Night Music and Night Watch) is without a doubt an attempt on my part to divest myself of the memory of that "Liz & Dick" TV-movie that aired on Lifetime last month. Boy, talk about your horror films! 
They cast WHO to portray me?
Copyright © Ken Anderson

16 comments:

  1. First of all, I loved the entry.
    Elizabeth Taylor is my all time favorite star/actress/woman/beauty etc. I also like this movie a lot and I agree with you on the fact that is full of clichés, but all in all, is fairly good- This movie is the kind that you would find playing on TV at 2 AM... LOVELY.
    I also think this is the best thing Elizabeth did in the 70s... maybe X, Y and Zee, and MAYBE Ash Wednesday, but thats more for its camp value...

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the post! There is a lot to like about "Night Watch", a film that's not likely to covert the unpersuaded into becoming Elizabeth Taylor fans, but is, as you say, perhaps the best of her 70s-era films (I of course would have to squeeze "A Little Night Music" in there somewhere).
    I too think she was rather good in "X, Y and Zee" but I've never seen "Ash Wednesday." Nice to hear from a fan of Elizabeth Taylor who has an appreciation for this film. It hasn't been widely seen, but those who know it think of it as a pretty nifty thriller. Indeed, one perfect for turning up at 2am on some TV channel. Very nice to hear from you!

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  3. Yet another movie (like Eye of the Cat) that I am salivating to see at some point. I watched a little bit of this on local, late-night TV when I was a pup. I just remember the darkness, stormy weather and Liz in a slip (??) running around screaming (??) I love Billie Whitelaw, too, and can already tell I would enjoy her in this characterization (more glam than Mrs. Blaylock, but still austere?) Neat! The movie looks great in your caps. I always enjoy reading your posts, even if the film in question isn't on my hot list (though most are!) Happy New Year to you!

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    1. Happy New Year, Poseidon!
      I always appreciate your passing on your interest or history with some film I've written about. Indeed your memories of this film are pretty accurate (alas, I think "Butterfield 8" marked the end of Liz willing to be photographed in a slip) but she wears plenty of diaphanous bedclothes and flowing caftans and there is a LOT of screaming.
      I fell in love with Billie Whitelaw in this movie. She looks terrific but always looks a tad sinister. Cast opposite the rounded figure of Taylor, Whitelaw looks like you can cut yourself on her cheekbones. They are really great together.
      Poseidon, you're so prolific on your blog (congrats on that), I find myself falling behind. Looking forward to catching up!

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  4. I've very much enjoyed your writings on some of the later films of Elizabeth Taylor, in what might be called her art house period. I think a wholesale reappraisal of this period (roughly 67-77) is called for! whilst the choices may not have always paid of, I think not enough credit is given to the boldness of Elizabeth's choices- most of these films received dismal reviews at the time- largely I think because the enormity of her fame clashed with the art house aesthetic of her films, and the audience that bought into her stardom felt alienated by the her film choices during this time. Conversely, the art-house crowd were largely put off by Elizabeth's fame and personal life to often give the films and her performances the recognition they deserved- now in hindsight it seems clear that in films like 'Reflections In A Golden Eye', 'Boom!', and 'Secret Ceremony' - which mark the turning point in her success both at the box office and in critical reception - that Elizabeth is making films that she knows full well are esoteric, and unlikely to 'pack them in' on a Friday or Saturday night. it feels as is if she is finally doing the kind of things that interest her and the commercial success or failure of them is secondary, it is notable as well, that in 'Dr Faustus', 'The Comedians' and 'Under Milk Wood' she is content to play a supporting role: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' in 1966 seems to be the turning point that liberates her to simply go for it! It is interesting that in this period 67' to 77' she never appears in a glossy Hollywood production as a token wife or girlfriend in a bid to keep her glamour and fame alive- indeed one of the things I find most interesting is her complete ease in playing characters that are often unlikeable. Elizabeth also experiments with a number of genres in this period- literary adaptations feature (Reflections, The Driver's Seat), but also horror (Night Watch), a kids film (The Blue Bird), a musical (A Little Night Music), a 'chick flick' (Ash Wednesday)- I don't think this variety is by chance, but a desire on Taylors part to keep her career moving in a diverse, interesting and ultimately fulfilling direction. best Andrew

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    1. Hello Andrew
      Yours is one of the most insightful evaluations of Elizabeth Taylor's latter career I've ever read. I think you make an absolutely valid point and absolutely nail a fact that has long been ignored when accessing the films Taylor chose to make in the late 60s and 70s. She took some definite risks and veered into pretty offbeat territory more than once, but she’s seldom given credit (independent of whether or not the films were hits) for her creative adventurousness. Today, stars like Johnny Depp can move easily from mainstream to independent “personal” films, but Taylor was doing it long before audiences, and especially her fans, knew what to make of it. I really love what you wrote and agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for a thought provoking comment!

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  5. *Spoliers*

    Great review of "Night Watch", Ken. I saw it yesterday and I am surprised it is so unknown since it is quite a good chiller with big stars. I thought Liz was fine and she was really good the first time she's terrified of what she sees looking out the window. She should have done more thrillers considering how bloodthirsty she was at the end!

    It's was fascinating to see the luxurious 70's clothes the cast wears in a time when jeans and t-shirts were worn by almost all, all the time. Lots of beige, brown and burgundy coloured satin...

    There were some parts of the plot that I found ponderous. The car accident is shown over and over making me think Liz was responsible for it and it had very little visually to do with her seeing a murder in the old house later on. Also, what was her relationship with the neighbor?

    I loved your description of Liz and Dick as Orthrus and your list of thriller clichés!

    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Long time no hear from! Wonderful that you got to see "Night Watch" for the first time and enjoyed it. There are so many really interesting films out there that are virtually ignored by the DVD marketers and cable TV programmers.
      Indeed, "Night Watch" has a pretty star-studded pedigree for its anonymous status,and Liz is very good in this vein. I wonder if she had been offered other thrillers during that 60s/70s vogue of casting older female stars in horror/thriller films.
      Those plot points you bring up are rather interesting in that I think they are exactly the kinds of things a writer will put into a thriller and hope that the viewer will "use" and try to see the connection.
      In this I mean to say that I think there are things left intentionally ambiguous so as to heighten suspense. often these things are open to multiple interpretations, none of them being wrong.
      I think your idea that perhaps Taylor had something to do with the accident of her first husband is a perfectly valid conclusion to come to (it's not my own, but it's a wonderful possibility). Likewise the questions you pose about the neighbor and the envisioned murder. I don't think they have a definite answer so much as what you THINK they all mean. The best thrillers send people out of the theater arguing about connecting the dots (like "Sleuth").
      Thanks for sharing your experience seeing this rarely seen film. And I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Very flattered!

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  6. You're right about people interpreting the ambigous parts of "Night Watch" differently. I wonder how much did Ellen know about her husbands' affair, when did she start planning her revenge and was she even sane?

    I love Liz's "art house" era and it's true that she was brave in her choices about the films she appeared in during this time, even though most of them were flops (and that's why I love them!).

    You simply have to see her in "The Driver's Seat" and please could you review "Secret Ceremony" and "Boom!"?

    -Wille

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    1. re: "Night Watch", I've seen the film many time over and I'm always looking for giveaway clues as to how soon Taylor might have plotted the whole thing; how the neighbor does or does not figure into her plot; and as you say, was she insane from the getgo?
      The film poses lots of tantalizing solutions, making it fun for multiple viewings. I've always wanted to see a stage version of it (some pretty poor examples are on YouTube, but I'm curious about how different it must be).
      I really DO have to see "The Driver's Seat" and I'm overdue for "Secret Ceremony", a movie that really disturbed me as a kid.
      As it is, I've tried to write about the films I own first, i have yet to get a copy of Secret Ceremony. I haven't seen it in years. Maybe you should write me and tell me what you think of it. I' sure it'd be fascinating.

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  7. I need to find this one, have been reading about it for years and it's NEVER on TV. Never saw a VHS version, either. I was lucky enough to catch Secret Ceremony as a 4:00 p.m. afternoon movie way back in the 70s, and actually saw Boom on the big screen in South Beach in a screening hosted by John Waters (it's his favorite film).

    Maybe some kindly person will upload the entire movie to YouTube someday...it's the only way I got to re-watch the Dennis Christopher thriller Fade To Black, and the TV movie Look What's Happened To Rosemary's Baby...I don't want these marvelous movie moments to be lost to the younger generations!

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    1. Hello 66
      Hope the blog-reading marathon is going well. Can't tell you how impressed I am with your tenacity (or patience, i'm not sure which).
      If you live in the U.S> Night Watch has been released by Warners as one of those "made to order" available by mail order through their website.
      And I guess you're the only other person I've encountered whose seen "Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby" (I have a VHS copy that is lousy, (literally and figuratively) and "Fade to Black", which used to air on cable TV all the time then disappeared. Yes, someone needs to protect and guard the legacy of trash cinema for future generations. Otherwise how will they be able to tell the difference between good trash ("Hammersmith is Dead") and forgettable garbage like "Fast and Furious 8,865"?

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  8. I just ordered Night Watch!! Extremely excited, being as big a horror fan as I am an old movie fan.

    Though my DVD shelves are getting a little tight, there is always room for another Elizabeth Taylor movie--I own Virginia Woolf, Father of the Bride, Cleopatra, National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butterfield 8 and Suddenly Last Summer...

    AND just as excited to add this as my FOURTH Billie Whitelaw--whom I adore--I will add this to Maurice, The Omen and Hot Fuzz!

    :-)

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    1. Congrats! I'm sure you're going to enjoy it! Quite a nice Taylor and Whitelaw collection you've amassed! happy viewing!

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  9. What a delicious experience it was seeing this for the very first time, quite appropriately on a dark and stormy night here in South Florida. Like you, I am a sucker for a well-plotted psychological thriller, and this film certainly delivers.

    Elizabeth Taylor's histrionics are a match made in heaven with this material, I agree totally. I was particularly delighted by Liz's series of bloodcurdling screams--the promise of Catherine Holly's hysteria in Suddenly Last Summer fulfilled and at least as effective as any B-movie scream queen I've ever seen. And Liz's portrayals of neurotic and high-strung women prepared her well for Ellen Wheeler...from Susannah in Raintree and Maggie in Cat to Martha in Virginia Woolf and Marina in The Mirror Crack'd.

    The climax of the film and its plot twists are particularly satisfying. LOVED seeing Liz let loose on prim-and-proper lying witch Billie Whitelaw...I'll say no more to avoid revealing spoilers...

    Thanks again, Ken. You have, again, opened my eyes to a must-see film that I intend to enjoy over and over and over again.

    Thanks for feeding my movie obsession, and I look forward to each and every of your brilliant blog posts that fire my passion for film.

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    1. So happy you liked the film! As one of Taylor's rare forays into the genre, it is worth a look for her fans, but I think it's also a pretty well plotted thriller that delivers. Your words are very kind and it pleases me that my posts (which i essentially just write for myself as a running diary of my favorite films) can inspire you to seek out a film you might not have known about. That's very gratifying, and I thank you!

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