31 Days to Scare ~ Night Watch (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: While rich widow Ellen Wheeler is staring out of the window one evening, she believes she’s witnessed a murder. The only problem is, does anybody else believe her, or is it just another manifestation of her recent nervous breakdown?

Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw, Robert Lang, Tony Britton, Linda Hayden

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Here’s a forgotten bit of fun for you today, the 1973 film adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s 1972 play, Night Watch.  Fletcher was the celebrated author of the suspense thriller Sorry, Wrong Number which began as a radio play before making its debut on stage and, eventually, on screen.  While Night Watch wasn’t as successful as Fletcher’s earlier work in play or film format, there’s still something all-together interesting watching a star like Elizabeth Taylor sink her teeth into her juicy leading role and then shake it back and forth like a maniac.

Taylor appears as Ellen Wheeler, a widow living with her new husband John (Laurence Harvey, Liz’s co-star in her Oscar winning Butterfield 8) in an insanely well decorated London terraced house.  Her friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw, The Omen) is staying with them, party to catch-up with her old chum and partly to be closer to a mysterious man she’s having an affair with.  Still haunted by the death of her previous husband who perished in an automobile accident with his mistress, Ellen stays up nights moping around her house.

One stormy night (don’t all good mysteries start like this?) Ellen sees what she thinks is a dead body in the decaying mansion next door.  The glimpse is brief (so brief I missed it and had to rewind it to see) but when the police investigate they turn up nothing.  Ellen is convinced of what she saw, though, and drives everyone around her mad with her protestations of what she believes she’s seen.

Though pretty stage-y at times (nearly the entire action takes place in several rooms in Ellen’s house), the film has a nice way of building tension the crazier Ellen starts to act.  Did she really see a body and does the killer set their sights on her?  Or is there something more sinister at work?  Don’t worry, I’ll never tell the twist.  I didn’t totally see it coming but thinking back the film sets up its finale almost from the start.  There’s even some clever bits of distraction that had me going down the wrong road for quite some time.

Harvey and Whitelaw are up for the challenge of going toe-to-toe with their violet-eyed costar and both add some nice layers to underwritten roles, Whitelaw especially never tips us off if she’s a friend to trust or to be suspicious of.  The film belongs solely to Taylor and the actress revels in her growing hysteria.  Add to that some hilariously flouncy muumuus she tears around her house in and a penchant for wearing heaps of make-up even in the dead of night and you have a camp performance that’s at times quite a hoot to behold.  Taylor’s a good actress, though, and knows when to dial back her effort, something that always set her apart from her peers.

I’d be interested in reading the play and see how much of it was changed as it transitioned to the silver screen.  For the year it was released and the rating it received, I was surprised at the amount of blood and mature situations on display.  It’s got a strong finale set in a dark house and if you can get your hands on a copy of Night Watch, it’s worth a look thanks to the leading lady and other strong performances.

If you want a good laugh, here’s a link to a review of a 1986 revival of the play from the New York times
http://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/09/theater/stage-night-watch-by-lucille-fletcher.html

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