Death Watch Review
The near future. With disease largely abolished, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is news: she is terminally ill. Roddy (Harvey Keitel) is a TV journalist with cameras implanted in his eyes. He is hired by his producer Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) to film to secretly film Katherine for a documentary series called Death Watch.
Death Watch (La mort en direct in French) is a curious but often fascinating blend of science fiction and arthouse. It was Bertrand Tavernier's fifth feature, made in 1979, an English-language French/West German coproduction shot in Glasgow and other Scottish locations. It didn't receive a UK cinema release until 1981, following the success of Tavernier's next feature, Une semaine de vacances (which remains MIA on UK DVD or Blu-ray, along with another of the director's major works of the Eighties, Sunday in the Country). Death Watch only had a limited release – there's a possibly apocryphal story of one distributor considering it “too intelligent for British audiences”. It was followed by one TV showing that I'm aware of and a VHS release in 1988 but has been hard to see since then though, given the local interest, the Glasgow Film Theatre have shown it occasionally
Unlike much screen SF, this film is based on a work of written SF, namely the 1974 novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (sometimes known as The Unsleeping Eye), by D.G. Compton, though the credits call him “David Compton”. The novel is due to be reprinted later this year by Gollancz in their SF Masterworks line. David Guy Compton, born 1930, wrote a number of respected SF novels mainly in the Sixties and Seventies. He was given the 2007 Author Emeritus Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
In the hands of Tavernier and his American co-screenwriter David Rayfiel (who would collaborate again on the 1986 film 'Round Midnight), Death Watch becomes a film of mood and character, centred on the growing bond between Roddy and Katherine. Tavernier and his DP Pierre-William Glenn show a keen eye for the Glaswegian locations – not just the city centre but in some notably decaying housing estates. They pull off a number of striking setpieces, including a steadicam chase through a Clydeside market.
The multinational cast is strong, though the mismatch of accents – American for Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton, Austrian for Schneider, is distracting (Thérèse Liotard, playing Roddy's estranged wife Tracey, has her dialogue and occasional voiceover dubbed by an uncredited Julie Christie.) In the supporting cast you can see former Doctor Who companion William Russell as Katherine's doctor and, in his cinema debut, Robbie Coltrane (speaking in an American accent) as a limousine driver. This was one of Romy Schneider's last films: she died in 1982 of a heart attack, aged just forty-three.
You can see why this film was greeted with such indifference. In the wake of Star Wars, Death Watch is very much a SF film of ideas rather than special effects, with a languid (and at over two hours, overlong) pace, a cool, rather cerebral tone, and a few arthouse narrative moves It's also in English, and you wonder if it might have been a better sell if it had been subtitled. It clearly fell between any number of stools on its original release. Nowadays, in the age of reality TV, it seems very prescient.
There still remain a number of holes in Tavernier's filmography, of films that are not currently commercially available in the UK. However, this reissue, its digital restoration (supervised by Pierre-William Glenn) enables us to reassess one of them – or, as in my case, finally see it after a thirty-year wait. It has its flaws, but it has its virtues as well. It's not top-flight Tavernier but it's certainly worth your time.