First released in 1980, I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to see, or even hear of, Death Watch. It may seem paradoxical to say so but I think it’s a masterpiece even while I recognise a number of small flaws. I only hope that others see it and agree with me.
The plot is almost scarily prescient. In the future, terminal illness is a rarity. In fact, it’s so rare that one TV executive (Vincent, played by Harry Dean Stanton) knows that when he finds someone in such a state he will have struck gold for his latest TV hit, Death Watch. Harvey Keitel plays cameraman Roddy, a man who no longer needs to carry a camera because he has had one implanted into his eye. The early footage seems good and Roddy will be the main cameraman for Death Watch, he just has to remember the golden rule – always stay near to some light source. Any spell of darkness could break “the equipment”, rendering Roddy blind. He can’t even close his eyes, learning to nap with them open. But what good is a cameraman without a captivating subject? That’s where Katherine Mortonhoe (Romy Schneider) comes in. She is dying and Vincent makes his offer. Allow herself to be filmed in the process and receive a large amount of cash while touching the lives of many people who somehow need to feel close to death, to go through the range of emotions that advancements in technology seem to have taken from them. Or maybe Vincent is just saying whatever he has to in order to get Katherine’s cooperation. Katherine, however, still doesn’t want to be involved and when she tries to take the money and run she is then befriended by Roddy, unaware of his recording abilities.
As well as those already mentioned, Death Watch also has a small-but-powerful role for Max Von Sydow, the first movie role for a Mr. Robbie Coltrane and the rugged beauty of Glasgow to add to the embarrassment of riches it offers viewers. William Russell is also very good as the doctor who advises Katherine, Therese Liotard is quite good as Roddy’s ex and Vadim Glowna is . . . . . . there . . . . in the role of Harry Graves, Katherine’s current husband.
The ideas onscreen here are all-too believable. Some have already become a reality while others seem to be just around the corner for us. Computers replacing teachers and also, a lot of the time, replacing hard work and creativity (Katherine is a writer who feeds her plotlines through a computer that analyses them and then advises her of potential sales). A hit TV show that sets out to show someone dying. A future that still has grit and grime to it but seems to lack colour and a sense of fun, it even seems to lack emotionally-stimulating art.
The three main performances from Schneider, Keitel and Stanton are superb so it doesn’t really matter about the uneven work from the supporting players. The script, by director Bernard Tavernier and David Rayfiel, is effective, sometimes unnerving and almost always beautiful. There are moments in the last third of the movie that may feel a bit too over the top, a bit too luvvy-ish with the poetic nature and sentiments being spoken, but the movie earns those moments and they’re underlined by the pain and needs of the characters.
Tavernier avoids the two standard sci-fi styles, things are neither too cold and sterile nor too beautifully sleek and ergonomic. The future has happened and things have moved along faster than people could have imagined but buildings are still made of stone and technological advancements haven’t miraculously wiped out class divisions and poverty. This is science fiction getting right to, and blurring, the edges of science fact.
I could go on and on about this film for a long time yet but I’ve already written far too much. In case you didn’t notice, I think that David Compton (writer of the source novel) is someone of brilliance, I think that the main actors involved are brilliant and I think that Bertrand Tavernier is someone I should really have taken more notice of years before now. This, to me, is essential cinema.
Death Watch is available on DVD now and I urge film lovers to pick it up ASAP. The disc comes with a few extras, the best of which is an interview with Bertrand Tavernier that lasts almost 40 minutes. How much pleasure you will deride from the behind-the-scenes photo galler, the image gallery or the trailer depends on how easily pleased you are. Thankfully, the movie itself makes this an essential purchase.
DIRECTOR: BERTRAND TAVERNIER
WRITER: BERTRAND TAVERNIER, DAVID RAYFIEL, DAVID COMPTON (AUTHOR OF THE SOURCE NOVEL “THE CONTINUOUS KATHERINE MORTONHOE, OR THE UNSLEEPING EYE”)
STARS: ROMY SCHNEIDER, HARVEY KEITEL, HARRY DEAN STANTON, THERESE LIOTARD, MAX VON SYDOW, WILLIAM RUSSELL, VADIM GLOWNA, ROBBIE COLTRANE
RUNTIME: 130 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: FRANCE, WEST GERMANY, UK