IT’S JUST THE WAY OF THINGS that one of the most visionary science fiction films ever filmed in Britain – and one of only a handful to capture the sense, space and light of the place – is also one of the least-seen and least appreciated in the country where it was made.
Shot by the mercurial French director Bertrand Tavernier around a battered Glasgow in 1979, Death Watch finally staggered out on a tiny UK theatrical run in 1981, but it got its largest audience (that is, not many) via its single late-night BBC TV broadcast shortly after. Since then, thanks partly to lingering rights issues, the movie has been barely screened, and, until now, never before issued on video or DVD in the UK.
As a consequence, Death Watch remains curiously unknown, despite a cast that blends itching icons of America’s Easy Riders-Raging Bulls wave – Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton – with key faces from the great, glacial European arthouse of the 1960s and 70s, Romy Schneider and Max Von Sydow.
The word commonly invoked around the movie is “prescient.” Adapted from DG Compton’s 1974 novel, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, Death Watch is set in an unspecified future, where medical advances have practically eradicated death from all causes except old age.
With the elderly shunted out of sight into anonymous care homes, the spectacle of death at all is a novelty, and so a producer at a vast TV network, Vincent (Stanton, beautifully sly), senses the appetite for a new type of show: he will find someone who is actually dying, dying young, and film every second of their final weeks, for viewers at home to feed on the experience and wallow in a vicarious sense of loss.
His key tool is his devoted cameraman, Roddy (Keitel, understated, but building to a classic Keitel breakdown), a professional so consumed by the job he has agreed to an experimental procedure, allowing the station to implant a camera behind his eyes, so everything he sees is fed directly back to the studio. All they need now is a star, and she appears in the perfect shape of Katherine (Schneider, luminous), a programmer of computer novels, young, beautiful and about to be informed by doctors she is terminally ill.
The only thing is, Katherine has some very old-fashioned ideas about privacy and self-respect, and – to Vincent’s delight – she goes on the run rather than become a morbid star, obliviously allowing helpful, homeless stranger Roddy and his hidden camera to accompany her. And so they go, from the city out into the damp green countryside, where fate awaits.
Already here, two decades before Big Brother appeared on TV screens, Tavernier is dealing in the issues of intrusion, humiliation and manipulation that dominate any discussion of reality TV today. As a prophecy of the development of entertainment, Death Watch ranks alongside Nigel Kneale’s astonishing 1968 TV play, The Year Of The Sex Olympics. But what renders the film unique is its strange, melancholy mood and its lyrical picture of the past and the future in collision.
In painting tomorrow, Tavernier employs the strategy Jean-Luc Godard used when he shot his sci-fi Alphaville in Paris; he doesn’t try and dress the place up as a metropolis of the future, all white suits and flying cars. Instead, he simply films the city as he finds it, and his outsider’s eye allows us to see how strange is its mix of fading 19th century grandeur fading further in the shadow of brutal modernity.
Glasgow then was in the midst of massive transformation, slum clearances and stalled motorway planning, and the place has a bombed-out, burned out look, as gothic graveyards, blackened tenements, shabby waterfronts and leafy circuses rub shoulders with stark modernist blocks, glinting refineries and derelict, demolished lots under lowering grey skies. On the sidelines of the story, there are demonstrations, legions of the poor, and vague talk of a past war, while the mingling of American and European voices lends a sense that the place has been colonised.
This vision of Britain as a bleak, weary wreck, haunted by history and cursed by unspecified societal breakdown is reminiscent of another Nigel Kneale piece, the underrated final instalment of his Quatermass saga, shot in London the same year, and it looks forward to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 masterpiece, Children Of Men, another film by an outsider, and the only sci-fi shot in Britain since Tavernier’s movie to use the country so well. In common with Cuaron’s movie, despite the sci-fi trimmings, Tavernier’s movie is at heart a very human story. The themes are loss and deception, the lies we tell to others and the truths we refuse to acknowledge ourselves. Finally restored and reissued, rescued from memory, it may come as a revelation.