Death Watch (1980) / Drama-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material and language
Running time: 130 min. (The 1982 US Theatrical release runs 117 min.)
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow
Small role: Robbie Coltrane, Bill Nighy
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Screenplay: David Rayfiel, Geza von Radvanyl (based on the novel, "The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe", aka "The Unsleeping Eye", by David Compton
Review published July 14, 2013
Based on the novel, "The Unsleeping Eye", by D.G. Compton, Death Watch is an early work by French auteur Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight, Coup de Torchon), his first English-language release, that posits a somewhat prescient image of a near future in which reality television is all the rage. While the premise is the stuff of science fiction, this is a rather slow-moving drama that digs much deeper into human nature, only using its futuristic setting to contrast how privacy will diminish in an era when people become walking cameras, not unlike today's society in which most people carry cellphones that can record just about anything, anywhere, and display them for all of the world to see.
Death Watch is set in Glasgow, Scotland, during a futuristic time in which fatal diseases have all but been completely eradicated; when someone does catch one, it's big news. However, they do appear from time to time, and this time it is computer-generated novelist Katherine Mortenhoe (Schneider, The Trial) who has contracted an ailment (Katherine chooses not to hear what the disease is) and is told by her doctor that she has only a couple of weeks to live. Vincent Ferriman (Stanton, Alien) is an ambitious television producer for the highly popular show "Death Watch", in which the last days of someone dying from a fatal disease is showcased, and he's come up with a new scheme he feels sure will get them closer to Katherine if she turns down their offer to let the cameras film her for a half-million dollar price. He enlists the services of a star reporter named Roddy (Keitel, Mother Jugs & Speed), who consents to have video cameras implanted in his eyes that record everything he sees by beaming the images back to the network. Max von Sydow (Three Days of the Condor, The Exorcist) comes into the film late in a small supporting role as Katherine's ex, Gerald.
There's no real CGI in this science fiction parable, so temper expectations that there will be a tech-heavy experience, as there are virtually no effects shots or futuristic-looking buildings, vehicles or fashions. Think of Death Watch as more of a philosophical drama combined with elements of character study, incorporating very modest science fiction elements rather than a grandiose post-Star Wars blockbuster. The conflict in the film grows deeper as Katherine doesn't know that she's being filmed by her newfound friend, Roddy, even though she has run away to the remote countryside where most technology doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Roddy develops stronger feelings for the dying woman, and begins to struggle with his ability to remain an unbiased chronicler for a voyeurism-obsessed society.
As mentioned previously, Death Watch is a slow experience that takes a diligent amount of attention in order to reap rewards as the storyline coalesces. While it never hits enough high marks to earn a blanket recommendation to mainstream filmgoers, if you enjoy independent films full of philosophical questions and social commentary, it's worth a look.
Sadly, also presciently, Schneider would indeed die just two years after this film's completion, at the age of 43, from a heart attack.
©2013 Vince Leo