Death Watch


Directed by Bertrand Tavernier Starring Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean, Therese Liotard, Max von Sydow Club, QFT, Belfast, 100 min

IT SEEMS astonishing that it has taken so long for somebody to re-release Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful science-fiction curio from 1979.

This is one of those works, like Nigel Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics, that saw reality television coming. A hirsute Harvey Keitel – in the style of the times – plays a journalist who allows a camera to be implanted in his left eye and then sets out to record the last days of a terminally ill woman (Romy Schneider) for a TV programme. In this version of the future, death has become increasingly rare, but other common forms of misery still abound. The woman’s story seems quite exotic in its hopelessness.

A fine director of actors, Tavernier draws characteristically nuanced performances from Keitel and Schneider. The difference in the actors’ styles and backgrounds helps add grit to their characters’ peculiar relationship. Max von Sydow and Harry Dean Stanton offer first-class support. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot Robbie Coltrane as a taxi driver.

Death Watch, adapted from an undervalued novel by David Compton, is, however, most remarkable for the way it treats Glasgow and the Scottish highlands. Recalling Godard’s use of Paris in Alphaville or Kubrick’s tricking with Thamesmead in A Clockwork Orange, Tavernier manages to make the contemporaneous seem spookily futuristic. Much credit must go to Pierre-William Glenn, cinematographer on Truffaut’s Day For Night and Chris Marker’s The Base of the Air is Red, who finds endless post-industrial scenery to fill his wide frame.

Death Watch is not quite a neglected classic. But its prescience and oddness set it apart. Well worth discovering or rediscovering for a first or nth gander.