Night Watch (1973 Britain)

Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) is stuck in a loveless marriage with John Wheeler (Laurence Harvey). There’s also a deserted mansion right next door to her. One dark and stormy night she sees a dead body in that house. She’s terrified and calls the police. They come but find nothing. Her husband and best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) try to convince her she was seeing things but she’s positive it was there. Soon she can’t sleep or eat and is slowly going mad. The viewer may also be driven mad by the pace of this flick: its slower than a broken clock. And that describes about the first eighty minutes of running time. So be patient. 

Although the “let’s-drive-an-heiress-mad” plot line had recently been done to death in Britain by Hammer Films following the success of their Taste Of Fear (1961), here we have a similar tale that harks back to an even closer degree to Gaslight (1940) but, thankfully, cleverly adds an effective twist at the finale. Even so, it speaks of the dispiriting lack of direction in British cinema at the time that, with the opening-up of censorship, film-makers responded by merely updating creaky old properties (that were outdated even 30 years earlier) with the newly-sanctioned gore and nudity than letting their creative juices flow more freely.

Actually, Night Watch (obviously unrelated to any of the films with which it happens to share its profusely-used title) is based on a Lucille Fletcher play from 1972 but, as already intimated earlier, the standard genre thread to which it adhered had long since been established; incidentally, Fletcher is best-known for penning Sorry Wrong Number ( yet another stage property on similar lines) and for having been married to legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann. Taylor is a mentally disturbed woman (haunted by images of the car-crash death of her former philandering husband and his mistress – played, via intermittent silent appearances, by Linda Hayden) married to creepy-looking stockbroker Laurence Harvey, who is himself two-timing Taylor with her own best friend, Billie Whitelaw. What a bastard!

Insomniac Taylor starts seeing mutilated bodies propped up in a chair by the window of the neighbouring dilapidated house and she keeps pestering the local Police about her ‘visions’ which, needless to say, produce no result when actually investigated – and, initially, a lonesome widowed gardener who used to inhabit Taylor’s mansion gets to become the prime suspect of the potential foul play. The affair between Harvey and Whitelaw (quite subtly depicted) makes them the obvious red-herrings with the man’s unexplained comings-and-goings and the woman constantly mixing odd-looking drinks to calm the wife’s shattered nerves. Indeed, the ingenious twist takes one by surprise when it comes and, I for one, did not recall that this was how things would play out from my single viewing all those years ago.

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