DEATH WATCH - Content
From the July 5, 1982, Deseret News
DEATH WATCH — Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Therese Liotard, Max Von Sydow; rated R (profanity).
"Death Watch" opens with a pensive moment as the camera pans past a little girl playing among gothic, steeple-size headstones while in the distant background is the movement of a city.
Though obviously European, the city and later locations are never named (the film was shot entirely in Scotland), thus representing any area of the world. Like the geography, the time is anonymous, though it is obviously the future.
Disease has been wiped out and the public has grown weary of 6 o'clock news reports of accidental or violent deaths. So NTV, a national or perhaps worldwide network, decides to add some life to one of its most popular news programs: "Death Watch." The show is simply about people who are dying, and it gets high ratings from an audience that can no longer find thrills. The new trick is to find someone dying of natural causes, a distinct rarity.
And "Death Watch" will follow that person to his or her death, capturing the final days, the last adventure with life and the ultimate demise.
A sober, black satire of television and society at large, "Death Watch is not a comedy, nor is it as frenetic as "Network," though a few resemblances do pop up from time to time.
This is an Orwellian approach filled with moments that are terrifying, others that are quite funny, and a constant feel for human sensibilities, with a science-fiction twist.
The TV camera to follow this dying soul is implanted in the eyes of a cameraman and he is required to merely follow the victim around, recording everything his eyes perceive.
"It's the new pornography," explains network head Harry Dean Stanton. But Harvey Keitel, the man with the surgically implanted camera, merely notes that despite all the multimillion-dollar technology that has gone into this revolutionary development, it's still restrictive. Keitel cannot be confined to darkness more than a few minutes without risking blindness, so he carries with him a flashlight to shine into his eyes in case of emergencies. "It still comes down to $1.98 Eveready," he muses.
The victim chosen for Keitel to follow is played by Romy Schneider, adding a tragic note to the film since the actress recently died of a heart attack. "Death Watch" was filmed more than three years ago; this is not her final movie. But she gives the performance of a lifetime as a woman who wants only to die with dignity but is instead hounded by the media and eventually deceived by Keitel.
This is low-key melodrama, loaded with irony and laced with comic undertones. Even without knowing that "Death Watch" was filmed by a Frenchman (director/producer/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier), the European style, lyrical yet cynical, is obvious. (This is Tavernier's English-language debut.)
He carries the audience through the experiences of his characters like old friends, and we care deeply about the parallel lives of both Schneider and Keitel, which finally come together for the film's final third.
"Death Watch" is a film of great integrity, with many thought-provoking things to say about our mechanized, computerized society and what it has done to our sense of humanity.
Schneider, probably best remembered in this country for her roles in "Good Neighbor Sam," "What's New Pussycat?" and "The Cardinal," aged gracefully (she was 43 when she died), having lost none of her beauty or charm. It's impossible not to root for her character as she tries to direct her own life, despite the interference of the world.
Keitel gives one of his most controlled performances to date and Stanton, in a role that is less wacko than usual, proves he can lend depth to these proceedings as a slightly sinister yet thoroughly human character.
Offering an offbeat narrative and performing splendidly as Keitel's ex-wife, Therese Liotard is wonderful, and Max Von Sydow in a small role at the picture's end is fine, as always.
The photography and music are superb, adding enormously to the proceedings. "Death Watch" is filled with emotion; this is not a razzle-dazzle science fiction film. As a result, the title is unfortunate and may mislead audiences, coming as it does on the heels of "Deathtrap" and "Death Wish II."