Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Watch" Out!

There are certain films we never get to see, no matter how many years we've waited. Now, grant you, I'm not always as aggressive as I could be about it. I don't place ads looking for things or go off on Internet hunting expeditions, seeking collectors or lesser-known distributors for them. I do, however, scan the channel guides with an eye open and on the lookout for those "bucket list"-"holy grail" movies that I want to see someday. Examples of movies that I thought I'd probably never see in my lifetime, but which were eventually unearthed and even given DVD releases (!) are Eye of the Cat (1969), The Adventurers (1970), Doctor's Wives (1971), Lost Horizon (1973) and City on Fire (1979.) (DVDs "manufactured on demand" or "burned to order" have helped immeasurably with this situation.) Today's featured film, Night Watch (1973) is another one that I truly wondered if I would ever see before my ticket got punched. Thanks to a recent TCM airing, I got my chance.

Its poster promising mayhem in a scary-looking (almost Psycho-ish) house and a horrified Elizabeth Taylor, this always seemed to be an irresistible combination that ought to have spelled box office success. It, however, only achieved middling results at the box office. (Produced by the House of Faberge under their Brut Productions, it was one of an oddly varied assortment of films they created between 1972 and 1978 including A Touch of Class, 1973, but also several highly-obscure flicks that rarely see the light of day now. Cry for Me Billy, 1972, Hangup, 1974, or Whiffs, 1975, anyone??)
Based upon a Broadway play by Lucille Fletcher (the author of Sorry, Wrong Number), the movie rights were obtained by Joseph E. Levine before the show even opened. It starred Joan Hackett and Len Cariou and ran for 121 performances. Originally intended to star George Maharis, the movie project instead caught the attention of Taylor and she selected a pal of hers from BUtterfield 8 (1960), Laurence Harvey, to play her husband instead.

The play's setting of Manhattan was swapped for London, England, which had long been a tax haven and sometime residence of Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton's. Thus, the small supporting cast was filled in with other solid British thespians.

Things begin pleasantly enough as our Miss Taylor visits a florist and purchases some small rosebushes for her backyard garden. She heads home with them and calls upon her Spanish (knife-wielding) cook for a hand with them.

Out in the backyard, which already has its share of foliage, she takes a long look at the house adjacent to her yard, a towering, dilapidated structure that tends to cast shade over the gardens of hers and her neighbor Robert Lang's.
Her neighbor, by the way, is forever outside puttering in his own garden and offers to plant her roses for her. He explains that the fine house she's now residing in used to be his and that, as a child, he played in her backyard. However, a shift in fortunes has reduced him to the smaller home next door.
Once back inside, Taylor dresses for dinner. (All of her clothing in the film is 1970s Valentino.) We find that she lives with her husband Laurence Harvey and that an old school chum of hers, Billie Whitelaw, is currently staying with her as well.

Whitelaw is currently enjoying a love affair with a married man, a golfer who meets her in hotel rooms for afternoon trysts. She's waffling between accepting a new job in another city or sticking around to see how things go with her lover.

Taylor looks out the window and is intrigued to notice her neighbor digging a coffin-shaped pit in the backyard during a rainstorm!  There are countless shots of Taylor peering out the window in this movie and many of them are accompanied by rain, which often washes away the years of actresses of a certain age!
Taylor, an insomniac, is haunted by visions of her first husband. Eight years prior, she was forced to come to the morgue and identify his body when he suffered a fatal car crash. Complicating things was the fact that he wasn't alone in the crash. A nubile young blonde was snuggled up to him at the time and she perished in the accident as well.

I really like the look she sports in the flashbacks. Her wig is very chic and streamlined - a nice change from the sort of messy, fluffy looks she sometimes wore in the 1970s.

Waking in the night, she lights a cigarette and heads over to a window overlooking the old house. She is captivated by that creaky, abandoned place and zeroes in on one shuttered window in particular. The rainstorm is knocking a shutter back and forth and at one point she believes she sees a man lying in a chair with his throat cut!

It's cheating now in this digital age to stop and take note that for a split-second, there is indeed a shot of a dead (or sleeping!) man on-screen, but it's purely meant to be subliminal and leave some degree of doubt as to whether Taylor has truly seen this as she claims.

Recoiling in horror, she begins screaming her head off. Harvey dashes in to see what's the matter and has trouble believing that she saw what she says she did, but she is insistent, demanding that he call the police. He finally does when she clearly will not back down about the horrible sight she witnessed in the creepy house.
When the inspector arrives with a small fleet of policemen, Harvey explains that his wife has been disturbed in the past and is in rather shaky condition. The men enter the abandoned house and search it carefully, but are unable to come up with either a body or even any blood or a sign of a struggle.
Everyone gathers around Taylor as she recounts what she saw once more. (This shot is almost like, "Gather 'round everyone. Miss Taylor is ACTING!" But, hey, that's pretty much what we're here for, right??) Despite her conviction for what she witnessed, no one can come up with anything concrete regarding it.
Whitelaw continues to have her fun. She heads into town to meet up with her married loverboy and enters his hotel room while he's showering. He doesn't answer her repeated greetings to him so she takes a small pitcher of icy water from the champagne bucket and dumps it over the shower curtain all over him, causing him to howl.

Meanwhile, Taylor and her maid are at the window again and Taylor points out the body-sized section of new planting that her neighbor has created. She now feels convinced that the reason the police cannot locate a body is because her neighbor has buried the poor soul under his new trees!

Contributing to her feelings of being gaslighted, Taylor also opens up a drawer to find her dead husband's lighter and cuff links! She lights into Harvey about how these items, which have been misplaced for years, suddenly have appeared in the drawer of a table she uses, next to her cigarettes when she is the only smoker in the house.

The table is used for a sizable jigsaw puzzle that she frequently works on. A closer look at the puzzle shows its peculiar content, a rather ghastly series of medieval figures, naked and violent.

Whitelaw is always demonstrating concern for Taylor, yet also seems awfully quick with a tranquilizer or a sleeping pill of some kind. Taylor starts to wonder if her old pal just wants her to be drugged up half the time. She also starts to wonder if something might be going on between Whitelaw and her husband.

The two of them do spy something going on again in the house across the way. There's a flashlight darting around, seen through the shutters. Taylor insists on calling the police again, though Whitelaw tries to dissuade her. The police come again and again find nothing of note, though this time they make the neighbor remove his freshly planted trees.

Harvey seeks help from a psychiatrist friend of his. He persuades the man to come to their home and interview the frazzled Taylor. After a session together in her room, he suggests that she go away for a while to a restful clinic he knows of so that she can regain her bearing and composure.
She agrees to do as he says, but that very night she has another sighting. (Close the drapes already and leave them closed!) This time she's spotted a dead woman with her throat cut and the shock of it sends her careening to the floor.

Taylor has been doing some checking into that old house and discovers that it is owned by a company called Dipco. As she's preparing for her trip to the clinic, Harvey has some papers for her to sign and she sees that Dipco is a company that he owns! (Anyone see a bit of Stockard Channing in the pic below?)
She frantically confronts him about the place and eventually tears out of the house, across the garden and into the dilapidated structure as yet another round of foul weather has kicked up. Harvey chases after her as Whitelaw implores him not to. When he ignores her, Whitelaw heads after her friends as well and the three of them wind up in the dark, deserted rooms of the house. I won't go on any more about the plot as it has a nifty turn or two in it that I wouldn't want to spoil.

1973 was the year that Taylor's decade-long personal and professional relationship with Richard Burton began to unravel. They had famously met and fallen in love during Cleopatra (1963), but had to unburden themselves of their spouses before they wed in 1964. Nine more cinematic collaborations occurred with the two-part TV-movie Divorce His/Divorce Hers (1973) an eleventh teaming and hitting close to home, apparently, as they divorced in 1974. (In 1975, they wed once more, but it didn't last a year.)

Watching Taylor in practically anything is an exercise in fascination. She just had a face that it was hard to turn away from. And it's the face of the movies, her having begun in the early-1940s and proceeded as a significant presence for about sixty more years. As these photos from A Place in the Sun (1951), Rhapsody (1954) and The Girl Who Had Everything (1953) demonstrate, her directors often resorted to framing that they knew in advance worked and helped retain familiarity with her on-screen persona.
At the time of Night Watch, she was but forty-one and often looks far older! (Though it must be said that people in general just looked older than their years in the past.) Even with great lighting and fancy costumes and jewelry, she nonetheless had a rather matronly appearance for someone of her age. The stirrings of weight gain and a decadent lifestyle didn't help this. Even so, we occasionally get a glimpse of that extraordinary face. (And I confess I found it difficult to deliberately showcase those angles that show her to a disadvantage. I tend to be geared towards capturing people at their best...! So you don't really see that bad shots here.)
Only Nostradamus could have foreseen that, after a wretched period in the 1970s of bloated obesity and haggard styling, that she would reemerge in the 1980s as a gloriously-appointed goddess all over again! After retiring around 2001 to pursue philanthropic endeavors and suffering some significant health issues (something that plagued her for much of her life), Ms. Taylor passed away in 2011 of heart failure at age seventy-nine.
Harvey had been the costar of Taylor's in BUtterfield 8 (1960), which won her her first Oscar. She had remained friends with him ever since (which, if you read up on him, was not the easiest feat in the world!) and requested his presence here.
The year before BUtterfield 8, Harvey had been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Room at the Top (1959), losing to Ben-Hur's Charlton Heston, though his costar Simone Signoret took home the statuette. His Darling (1965) costar Julie Christie also won an Oscar, making him something of a good luck charm for his leading ladies. One of his best-remembered films now is 1962's The Manchurian Candidate.

Harvey was ill during Night Watch and, in fact, would be dead by November of 1973 from stomach cancer at only age forty-five. He never stopped working, however, and fit one last film in (Welcome to Arrow Beach, 1974) before he was felled by the disease.

Whitelaw cut her teeth on the British stage before working on her country's television shows in the early-1950s. She continued to balance theatrical performances with film and TV for years after and was also the muse of esteemed playwright Samuel Beckett. Though she remained steadily employed up to the millennium in a variety of parts, one of her most vivid, indelible portrayals was as the sinister Mrs. Baylock in The Omen (1976.) She died in 2014 of natural causes at age eighty-two.

Lang was a stage actor who was hand-picked by Laurence Olivier to join the National Theatre Company. He later appeared with Olivier in Othello (1965), The Dance of Death (1969) and King Lear (1983) as well as winning roles in countless other movies and TV shows including The MacKintosh Man (1973) with Paul Newman, Shout at the Devil (1976) with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore and The Medusa Touch (1978) with Richard Burton, to name only a few. He died in 2004 at the age of seventy from cancer, having worked right up to the end.

We'll close with a few eye-catching promotional items. First up is this wretched piece of art for a video release. It looks like they've used Taylor's late-'1970s appearance as a model!

This Asian poster has in its center a wooden rocker, which recalls Psycho a bit, but has nothing to do with Night Watch. Night Watch is always about a wing-backed armchair!

The artist for this foreign release poster had fun reproducing the many faces of fear that La Liz put forth in the movie.

Here we have one of the watery window shots taking center stage.  I think we all could benefit from such treatment...! Beats spreading a stocking (or an Indian blanket) across the lens to hold back Father Time!

The film has a theme song which apparently was sung over the end credits in British release prints, but not in the U.S. version. Sheet music for it was published as seen here. For those of you who are dying to hear it (no pun intended), I give you this link to the vocals by Lee Vanderbilt (aka Ebony Keyes.) The score of the film by John Cameron is effectively creepy with a near-constant eerie wind-like sound. Cameron scored quite a few of the Brut films.

And lastly, as noted previously, this was a Brut Production. As a result, Ms. Taylor's dressing table is littered with Faberge products, a key one being the distinctive yellow plastic ball of Kiku perfurmed powder as seen here in the movie and the advertisement in the inset. Product placement at its finest! I'm surprised we never saw Harvey splashing on some of the after shave in its familiar (and phallic) green bottle.


Gingerguy said...

Oh boy! Right up my alley. I have seen all on your bucket list except City On Fire. Dvd's on demand gave me the miniseries Scruples, Sins, and Lace but those were revisits.
There is some wackadoo Taylor movie with Mia Farrow called Secret Ceremony I also want to see someday. Your later point about a career resurgence was well taken. Around here is where it went off the rails, with probably the lowest point to me being General Hospital.
I must say "Whiffs" by Brut sounds scentsational.
Liz is still pretty here but it's a rough year for hair and clothing. Shocker that it's Valentino, I would bet she added that door knocker pendant herself. The cream doubleknit with obvious girdle is very cross-dressy looking. There was a great late career documentary about Valentino. He spoke about creating a gown which she then topped off with a crazy flowered bathing cap creation that the press went crazy over, to his dismay.
Agreed that she is gorgeous in that morgue flashback. Hair makes all the difference. She looks a little like she did in The Only Game In Town.
Laurence is still handsome and sad he died so young. The groovy hairdo does him no favors though.
Mrs Blaylock! you blew my mind Poseidon. That smile, I see it now. Wow. I wish I had gotten my act together to record this on Turner. I must say there is a joy to stumbling on this stuff later, delayed gratification. We haven't seen it all yet, not by a long shot.

Ken Anderson said...

Yes! Your wish list of films is getting shorter and shorter.
This one is a major fave, and Taylor, in all her fleshy glory, is a great deal of fun to watch.
I look at it now with a great deal of amusement and entertainment, but when I first saw it as a teen, it really disturbed me. Had no idea George Maharis was once attached to the project. And thanks for the shot of Faberge products on Taylor's vanity! After seeing it so many times, I never once noticed that! Marvelous post, Poseidon!

Rick Gould said...

Hey Poseidon!

Nightwatch was one of ET's latter period films that got routinely panned by critics sick of The Burtons, but as this one's come out on DVD and BluRay, the critics are much kinder...

Elizabeth's looks were wildly variable during the Burton years. The very next year, Taylor appeared in Ash Wednesday, where she was slim, stylish, and lovely--her best appearance onscreen in the '70s.

I think Taylor very cleverly played on her past 'emotional'roles to play Ellen, in this 'who's zooming who?' thriller.

It's fun watching this cast go through its paces, led by La Liz!



Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, as a lover of all-star casts, I watched every one of those miniseries (and many more!) when they first aired and sometimes in reruns. I have actually seen "Secret Ceremony," and though it is of interest it didn't wind up a fave of mine. Hilarious about "Whiffs" and the "door-knocker pendant!" I am ALL ABOUT delayed gratification. I hang on to DVDs until I'm all ready to pay close attention. If I'm splitting something to eat in half, I save the better part for next time. But we can never be sure there'll BE a next time! LOL

Hi Ken! I remember when you profiled this. It made me dream, no pun intended, of seeing it. And while Liz is getting fleshy here, I don't want it to seem like I'm saying she wasn't still beautiful. Poor dear was actually suffering from both heart & back trouble and it shut the project down for a couple of weeks during mid-filming. (I've actually wondered if that is why her hair seems to have more gray in some scenes. Perhaps a hospital bed touch-up/dye job during the break or the emergence of gray after the initial coloring to start with!)

Rick, "Ash Wednesday" is just about the last one of her films I've yet to see that I desperately want to. Some day... Good point about her past roles. Her mental health had been called into question before on everything from "Raintree County" to "Suddenly Last Summer." Thanks!