Saturday, December 20, 2014

Night Watch (1973)

          Old-fashioned save for a gory finale, this adequate little thriller is hampered by leading lady Elizabeth Taylor’s overwrought performance—even though, by the outrageous standards of her usual style, she’s comparatively restrained in this picture. The problem, of course, is that Taylor rarely portrayed recognizable human beings, instead incarnating dream girls and harpies and vamps. Since the storyline of Night Watch is predicated on Taylor’s ability to believably convey the way her character teeters on the edge between madness and sanity, Taylor’s shortcomings nearly scuttle the whole endeavor. Thankfully, director Brian G. Hutton and his collaborators present the story with confident pacing and photography, while composer John Cameron provides an eerie score laden with theremin flourishes straight out of some vintage ’50s shocker.
          Set in England (where the film was produced), Night Watch concerns Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), a troubled woman struggling through a shaky second marriage. Her first husband died under traumatic circumstances, and now Ellen is wed to John (Laurence Harvey), who may or may not be trysting with Ellen’s best friend, Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw). Already considered unhinged by everyone she knows, Ellen raises further worries about her mental state when she claims to have seen a murder committed in the house next door. This leads to all sorts of friction with Ellen’s neighbors and with the local police, who dig up gardens and search vacant houses while looking for clues that never materialize. Eventually, the story becomes a battle of wills between Ellen and John, because once John suggests that Ellen spend time in a sanitarium, she must prove her sanity in order to save her own freedom. Naturally, there’s a big twist toward the end of the picture.
          Most everything about Night Watch is executed at a fairly high level, from the general ambiance to the supporting performances, so Taylor’s acting is the only major weak spot. Furthermore, flashbacks to the time when Ellen’s first husband died are effectively gruesome, long scenes of characters probing mysterious hallways contain a measure of suspense, and the violent finale is exciting. As such, it’s wrong to categorize Night Watch as camp, since the leading lady’s flamboyance is the sole cartoonish element. Nonetheless, how much enjoyment each viewer can derive from Night Watch depends in large part upon each viewer’s Taylor tolerance.

Night Watch: FUNKY

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