"It looks difficult."
Delicious, creepy, Grand Guignol thriller, with the divine Liz going off the rails in splendid fashion. Warner Bros. essential Archive Collection, their on-line service of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) library and little-seen titles, has released 1973's hard-to-find Night Watch, based on the play by Lucille Fletcher and directed by Brian G. Hutton, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw, and Robert Lang. Long-sought after by fans of Taylor, Night Watch achieves the next-to-impossible with its overly familiar tale of a woman going mad: it genuinely surprises you with a triple-twist ending that's as unexpected as it is bloody (and bloody marvelous). Viewers who have seen Night Watch on various pan-and-scan VHS imports will definitely like Warner's new slick widescreen transfer here.
Bored, dreamily distraught London housewife Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor), believes that something isn't quite right with the abandoned, shuttered, crumbling gothic mansion that looms menacingly over her back garden. Having moved into her luxurious new digs six months ago, the unsteady Ellen is also suspicious of her next door neighbor, Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang), a friendly retired mannequin manufacturer and now puttering gardener who grew up in Ellen's new home, but who now, reduced in circumstances because of a divorce, occupies the neighboring garden flat. Ellen's overly solicitous, vaguely condescending husband, broker John Wheeler (Laurence Harvey), is concerned for Ellen's health, considering how she's a drinker and pill-popper, and a chronic insomniac who has nightmares about her ex-husband's death in a car accident...an accident that revealed her husband to be a two-timer, with beautiful blonde chippie (Linda Hayden) seated right next to him at the moment of their death. Houseguest and old schoolgirl chum of Ellen's, Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw), is staying for a few weeks, and as usual, she's engaged in another affair with a married man, much to Ellen's casual disapproval. On the proverbial "dark and stormy night," another night that Ellen can't sleep, while looking out her rain-swept window across to the shutter-flapping windows of the mansion, she sees the figure of a tall, fair man―much like her dead husband Carl―seated in a wing-backed chair, with his throat cut. After convincing a skeptical John to call the police, equally non-plussed Inspector Walker (Bill Dean) has the mansion looked over...and finds nothing. What, exactly, did Ellen see? Are there dead bodies over in that abandoned mansion? Or has Ellen finally lost her battle for sanity?
MOVIE-RUINING PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!
Fair warning, reader: there's no way to talk about the delicious Night Watch without revealing its multiple surprise endings, so if you haven't seen it, and the above description intrigues you, I highly recommend that you pick your way gently through the rest of this review if you don't want the surprises spoiled. I'll be more specific about the actual big spoilers throughout.
The prospect of Night Watch succeeding at the box office was probably doomed from the start, considering the circumstances and context of its production. Even though the majority of Night Watch's plotting and execution falls in line with the conventions of the tried-and-true traditional "whodunit" thriller, the film's savage, bloody final ten minutes firmly puts it in with the "all-star Grand Guignol horror" mini-subgenre that was already played out by 1973 (begun, arguably, with the classy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and winding down with lesser, cheaper efforts like Who Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter With Helen?). Certainly by 1973, Elizabeth Taylor had played out her string with audiences, too―audiences that must have been puzzled by her inclusion in such a seemingly unseemly enterprise (that fun-but-misguided theatrical poster makes Night Watch look like some drive-in offering from AIP or Amicus). Having reached the pinnacle of both her commercial and critical appeal with 1966's masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Taylor's further film excursions with celebrity husband Richard Burton met with increasingly dismal returns, from ticket buyers and critics alike. Soon, just the mere mention of "the Burtons" was enough to set peevish critics off in search of their Thesauruses for fruity put-downs of the actors (granted...they asked for a lot of that unfair treatment, with their highly publicized real-life antics vying for ink against dreary efforts like Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, Boom!, Under Milk Wood, and Hammersmith is Out!).
Even Taylor's Burton-less outings like Reflections in a Golden Eye, Secret Ceremony, The Only Game in Town, Zee and Co., and Ash Wednesday, regardless of their worth, found little favor with audiences who were turning to newer, younger stars. Adding Laurence Harvey to the mix wasn't exactly going to help Night Watch's b.o., either; the once in-demand international star of such big-winners as Room at the Top, The Alamo, Butterfield 8, The Manchurian Candidate, and Darling, had been reduced by 1973 to supporting roles in non-starters like WUSA, before sinking to stints on American television in Columbo and Night Gallery (indeed, Night Watch would be the star's next-to-last movie; he was diagnosed with stomach cancer during Night Watch's production). Even Night Watch's promising director, Brian G. Hutton, of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes fame, had stumbled recently with what else, an Elizabeth Taylor movie: the badly received Zee and Co.(Hutton wouldn't make another film after Night Watch for seven years, and would eventually quit the filmmaking business altogether to become, if internet sources can be believed, a plumber. I bet he made more money plumbing).
So how ironic is it, then, that Night Watch turns out to be so good, from the performances, to the direction, to the neat little twists it gives to its hoary old clichés. After all, what could be more predictable than the old "woman going insane while getting gaslighted by cheating husband" storyline? And after the first 20 minutes of Night Watch, even a hard-core movie watcher like myself who has seen literally hundreds (or god, maybe even thousands) of similar variations on TV and the big screen, felt, despite the professionalism of the production, like I knew where everything was going in the story, without any expectation of surprises. From a screenplay by Tony Williamson (TV's delightful The Avengers and Jason King) and Evan Jones (Modesty Blaise, Funeral in Berlin), based on the 1972 play by Lucille Fletcher (of enduring Sorry, Wrong Number fame), the mystery is well constructed, with obvious red herrings to mislead us into smug complacency, set against a beautiful production design that's at once glamorous and subtly menacing (drizzly, gloomy London is much better suited here than the play's Manhattan setting), and enacted by an impeccable British cast who wisely play everything in a very minor key―essential for tricking us into allowing all the clichés.
So what starts out as a perfectly respectable rehash of a story we've visited far too many times, begins to take on a decidedly weird vibe, until its undeniably hair-raising conclusion. Director Hutton seeds our growing doubts as to Ellen's sanity by shooting several arresting nightmare sequences, where she remembers going to the hospital to i.d. her dead husband, nightmares that seem to conflict with her stated memories of the crash (the cinematography and framing for these creepy sequences are quite "modern" looking, even for today, courtesy of Billion Dollar Brain and Gandhi cinematographer, Billy Williams), while evoking two distinct settings―the dark, crumbling, "haunted house" mansion, and the luxury townhouse―that are both remarkably menacing in their own right. Even better are Ellen's "sightings" of the murder victims, with Hutton leaving it open to question as to whether or not Ellen truly saw anything (use your DVD frame-advance to see how smart the editing is here). Fair warning: don't read any further if you don't want plot spoilers.
Quite cleverly, though, by closely following the visual and aural conventions of the genre (the thunderclaps whenever someone says something significant; the lightning flashes that reveal hidden information, the discordant music/noise on the soundtrack anytime Ellen becomes confused and threatened), Hutton sets us up to pull the rug out from under our expectations. Since Night Watch looks and sounds like every other thriller we've seen in this subgenre, it should act that way, too. We keep expecting events to follow our genre guidelines, but they don't. Such as at the end, when Ellen confronts John and Sarah about their affair and their subsequent plot to institutionalize her; we expect them to eventually crumble under her accusations...but they don't, and more to the point, Harvey and Whitelaw are genuinely believable in their denials (Harvey has one of his best, understated performances here, while Whitelaw is sexy as hell in her jersey dresses and her cat-like, sidelong glances). We keep expecting the Inspector to eventually come to his senses and rush to Ellen's aid, even if it's too late at the end, because that's what the coppers do in movies like Night Watch...but he doesn't, permanently writing her off as a kook and leaving the viewer with the feeling she's on her own in this plot. And best of all, we expect Ellen to get pushed too far in her husband's and best friend's plot (or is it a plot?); we expect her to go crazy and to perhaps try to kill them after learning of their subterfuge, when she runs off to the mansion with John and Sarah in pursuit. But she doesn't go crazy. Or does she?
To Night Watch's credit, this final twist, where Ellen is revealed to be a calculating killer who manipulated everyone to get back at her cheating husband and lover, feels not like a gimmick at all, but a fresh updating of the genre conventions―and an amusing joke on the know-it-all viewers who were so sure where everything was going to wind up. Looking back on the movie, Elizabeth Taylor deserves the lion's share of the accolades for making that twist credible; her performance is technically spot-on, conveying the wavering impression that Ellen's either the innocent victim of a nefarious plot, or an unhinged neurotic pushed too far―but never a cold, scheming murderess...until the very last scene, of course. For my money the all-around single best actress the movies have so far seen (her physical connection to the audience is almost supernatural), Taylor gets to stretch here and play homicidal in the final moments of Night Watch, and as expected, she nails it. Director Hutton could have hedged his bets with this final battle between Taylor and Whitelaw in either cut-aways or carefully framed shots to hide the horror, but instead, he lets Taylor loose with a carving knife as she repeatedly, viciously stabs Whitelaw, delivering a full-on slit-throat coup de grace that's as shocking as it is scarily proficient on Taylor's part. Considering the semiotics of movies, and the iconic visual and thematic baggage for a viewer that comes with a major star, this final sequence with Taylor is remarkably disconcerting, capping off what seemed like routine thriller, and driving it into new, unsettling territory.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.