BOOTLEG FILES 366: “Night Watch” (1973 thriller starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey.
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A 1987 VHS video release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has been out of circulation for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible, but there does not appear to be any movement in that direction.
On the surface, the 1973 film “Night Watch” appears to cover extremely familiar territory: a jittery individual witnesses a heinous act of violence, but is unable to convince anyone that this terrible crime occurred. This production, however, enjoyed a great deal of critical acclaim when it was released, thanks to an out-of-nowhere denouement that caught many reviewers by surprise.
Since the film is not very well known today, however, this column will avoid spoilers. What can be said, however, is that the story behind the creation of the “Night Watch” is actually a lot more entertaining than the finished film.
“Night Watch” began its life as a Broadway play written by Lucille Fletcher, who was best known as the author of the classic thriller “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The play has its premiere in 1972, starring Joan Hackett as a wealthy Manhattan woman who insists that she saw a murdered body in an abandoned building across from her townhouse. Brut Productions, a cinematic subsidiary of the Faberge cosmetics company, acquired the screen rights to “Night Watch.” However, Joan Hackett was not considered for the film version.
Instead, the starring role in “Night Watch” was handed to Elizabeth Taylor – and this was, admittedly, an even bigger gamble. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Taylor’s box office cred collapsed due to an astonishing skein of self-indulgent films that alienated critics and audiences alike. While her then-husband and frequent co-star Richard Burton also saw his stellar power diminish, at least he was able to eke out a couple of well-regarded films during this otherwise dismal period – including the 1969 box-office hit “Where Eagles Dare,” which was directed by Brian G. Hutton. Hutton, who also directed Taylor in his 1972 flop “X, Y and Zee,” was brought in to helm “Night Watch.”
The first problem with “Night Watch” came with Taylor’s insistence on acting in films that were not produced in the U.S. Despite their string of flops, Taylor and Burton were still being paid very handsome sums for their movie roles, and they preferred to work outside of the U.S. in order to avoid being slapped with significant IRS bills. Thus, the Manhattan-bound “Night Watch” was relocated to London in order to accommodate its tax exile star.
The next problem was the inability to submerge Taylor into her role as a wealthy housewife haunted by the death of her first husband (he died in a car crash – along with his mistress) while everyone around her (including her second husband, her long-time best friend, her physician and the local police department) believe that she may be cracking up. Throughout “Night Watch,” it is impossible for Taylor to move away from her public persona as a movie star and inhabit her role. Taylor’s elaborate hairstyles, theatrical eye make-up, chic designer wardrobe and bedazzling of jewelry (including the most amazing diamond-and-ruby ring) are completely at odds with her character – too often in the film, she seems more interested in vamping like a movie star than exploring her character’s growing anxiety.
Even more distracting was Taylor’s well-publicized weight problems. In the course of the film, her weight visibly fluctuates, and her hairstyles and costumes keep changing to create some degree of consistency – sharply tailored pantsuits and controlled hairstyles for her thinner periods, wildly flowing blouses and hairstyles for her heavier days.
A minor problem, at least in terms of commercial viability, was the decision to cast Laurence Harvey as the husband of the jittery woman. Harvey’s career trajectory seemed to mirror Taylor’s: into the late 1960s and early 1970s, his once-potent box office appeal evaporated. By the time that he was signed to appear in “Night Watch,” Harvey was fortunate to snag guest spots on TV programs including “Night Gallery” and “Columbo.” In casting Harvey, it appeared that the “Night Watch” producers were eager to recall the magic that the actors enjoyed in their 1960 triumph “Butterfield 8,” which earned Taylor her first Academy Award while securing Harvey’s place as a Hollywood star.
“Night Watch” could have been a career turnaround for Harvey – it was his biggest role in years and, quite frankly, he gave a fine performance. During the production, however, he was hospitalized for abdominal surgery. Work on the film was suspended for a month until Harvey could return to the set, but several months after completing his performance, Harvey was dead from stomach cancer. He was only 45 years old.
As for the film’s celebrated surprise ending – what I can say about it is that it makes almost no sense whatsoever. Some of the problem may have come with the screen adaptation – the original Fletcher play was based in a single set, where the central character’s instability grows in a claustrophobic setting while a large cast of characters fuel the mystery and suspicion.
But the film version chops away most of the characters from the original text. In their place are newly conceived flashbacks that clearly confirm the possibility of the central character’s madness, and there is also a new quickie scene in a hotel room that telegraphs a plot-turning subplot too far in advance. By the time the denouement is finally revealed, there are too many contradictory considerations for the shock to be acceptable, let alone credible.
Nonetheless, “Night Watch” opened to positive reviews – the film was able to secure a premiere at New York’s fabled Radio City Music Hall, which was no mean feat for an independently produced feature. However, U.S. audiences had already given up on Taylor and stayed away from the film. However, Taylor still had global name recognition, and the film had more commercial success in other markets.
But since its theatrical run, the film seems to have dropped out of sight. “Night Watch” turned up as a poorly promoted 1987 VHS video release with a crummy pan-and-scan transfer. To date, the film has never been commercially released on DVD. Bootleg DVDs based on the VHS release can easily be located, but the quality of these offerings is less than adequate.
If “Night Watch” is less-than-satisfactory, it nonetheless offers a distracting footnote in Taylor’s long career – and, perhaps, it can serve as a reminder to aspiring filmmakers on the mistakes that must be avoided when bringing a thriller to the big screen.
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