In honor of Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday, Movies & Drinks thought it an ideal time to look at her 1973 thriller from AVCO Embassy Pictures, Night Watch—one of Miss Taylor’s less-successful mid-career outings that should have put her back on top with both critics and ticket buyers.
By Paul Mavis
Night Watch, director Brian G. Hutton’s atmospheric, nervy adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s play, starring Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw, and Robert Lang, is deliciously creepy Grand Guignol fun, achieving the next-to-impossible task of taking its overly-familiar tale of a woman going mad, and making it genuinely surprising, with a triple-twist ending that’s as unexpected as it is bloody (…and bloody marvelous).
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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). He’s a friendly retired mannequin manufacturer and 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. She frequently has nightmares about her ex-husband’s death in a car accident…an accident that revealed him to be a cheating 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 where Ellen can’t sleep—while looking out her rain-swept window and across the garden to the shutter-flapping windows of the neighboring 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?
Fair warning, dear Movies & Drinks 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 yet, 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 review (yes…the movie is worth all these “spoiler warning” shenanigans).
Not a hit with audiences back in 1973, Night Watch’s prospects of succeeding at the box office were probably doomed from the start, considering the circumstances and context of its production. Even though the majority of Night Watch‘s plotting and execution fall in line with the conventions of the tried-and-true traditional “whodunit” thriller, the movie’s savage, bloody final ten minutes firmly puts it in with the “all-star Grand Guignol horror” subgenre, one that the moviegoing public had tired of by 1973 (a mini-genre begun, arguably, with the classics What Ever 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 seemingly tawdry exploitation fare (that fun but completely misguided original theatrical poster art makes Night Watch look like some drive-in offering from AIP or Amicus).
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Having reached the pinnacle of both her commercial and critical appeal with 1966’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Taylor’s further movie 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…the couple asked for a lot of that, with their highly publicized real-life antics vying for ink against dreary efforts like Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, the incomparable 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 critical worth—found little favor with younger 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. chances, 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 Paul Newman’s WUSA…before sinking to stints on American television (Columbo, Night Gallery)—the kiss of death for a movie star’s headlining chances (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 director, Brian G. Hutton, who had scored two massive Clint Eastwood hits (Where Eagles Dare, with Taylor’s husband, Richard Burton headlining, and Kelly’s Heroes), had stumbled recently with, what else, an Elizabeth Taylor movie (the flop Zee and Co., with Michael Caine). Such was the poor reception of Zee and Co., known as X, Y, and Zee here, and then Night Watch, that Hutton wouldn’t make another movie for seven years, and would eventually quit the moviemaking business altogether to become, if internet sources can be believed, a plumber. Quite a comedown from directing legendary actors like Taylor, Burton, Eastwood, and Caine (but I’ll bet he made more money unstopping sinks).
So, how nice of a surprise is it, then, that Night Watch, with all those bad omens, turns out to be so marvelously 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 and uninspiring than that old “woman going insane while getting gaslighted by her cheating husband” storyline? I certainly wasn’t anticipating much. Despite the professionalism of the production, after the first twenty minutes of Night Watch, I felt like I knew where everything was going in the story, without any expectations…or surprises. Wrong.
From a screenplay by Tony Williamson (U.K. 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), Night Watch’s central mystery is well constructed, with obvious red herrings to mislead us into smug complacency. It sports 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 it’s 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. These nightmares seem to conflict with her stated memories of the crash. They also help to fix our two distinct settings―the dark, crumbling, “haunted house” mansion, and the luxury townhouse―as all the more menacing (the cinematography and framing for these unsettling sequences are quite “modern” looking, even for today, courtesy of Billion Dollar Brain and Gandhi cinematographer, Billy Williams). 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), director Hutton sets us up to yank the rug right out from under our expectations. Since Night Watch looks and sounds similar to other thrillers we’ve seen in this subgenre, it should act that way, too, right? 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 in Night Watch, 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 (like me). 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 tangible, physical connection to the audience, through the lens, is supernatural), Taylor gets to stretch here and play homicidal in the final moments of Night Watch, and 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 following a major star through their career, this final sequence with Taylor is remarkably disconcerting, capping off what seemed like routine thriller, and driving it into wholly new, unsettling territory. What a worthwhile shock.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.