By 1973 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s nine year marriage was coming to an end and both actors wanted to focus on their individual careers. Night Watch (1973) features one of Elizabeth Taylor’s few solo performances as an actress while she was married to Burton and it’s one of my favorite Taylor films from the 70s’ for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it’s a thriller and I love a good creepy thriller with an unexpected twist ending. The film also stars the gorgeous Laurence Harvey who had previously appeared with Taylor in the Oscar winning melodrama Butterfield 8 (1960) and I enjoy watching Taylor and Harvey together. Not only do they provide some incredible eye-candy, but they also have an interesting chemistry on screen. Taylor delivers one of her most unusual and unexpected performances in Night Watch that clearly mocks some of her previous roles, while playing smartly with audience expectations. And lastly, Night Watch evokes many of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films.
The film was based on a play by Lucille Fletcher who made a name for herself writing suspenseful radio plays in the early forties such as The Hitch-Hiker (1941), which was originally performed by Orson Welles and The Campbell Playhouse and later turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as Sorry, Wrong Number (1946), which became an Oscar nominated film in 1947 directed by Anatole Litvak. Lucille Fletcher was married to the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, who also got his start working with Welles on classic films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) before he made an even bigger name for himself composing scores for popular Alfred Hitchcock thrillers like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Although Lucille Fletcher and Bernard Herrmann divorced in 1948, it’s impossible to watch Night Watch and not be reminded of many of Hitchcock’s best films. The script seems to borrow a bit from Suspicion (1941), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), while combing elements of Fletcher’s earlier plays.
Top: Elizabeth Taylor watches a murder take place
Middle: Taylor dreams of hospital morgues
Bottom: The corpse of Linda Hayden gets her kill face on*
In Night Watch Elizabeth Taylor stars as a wealthy but reclusive woman called Ellen Wheller who suspects that her current husband John (Laurence Harvey) and her best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) are having an affair behind her back. Things take an odd turn one dark and stormy night when Taylor peers through a window and much like James Stewart in Rear Window, she thinks she’s seen a murder take place in an old abandoned house next door. Since she’s prone to hysteria Ellen ‘s husband doesn’t believe her, but he reluctantly calls the police anyway. When the police finally arrive and search the old house they find no evidence that a murder has taken place there. Ellen suspects that her neighbor (Robert Lang) might be involved and remains convinced that she’s seen a horrendous crime occur. Taylor’s character is also plagued by terrible nightmares involving her first husband (Kevin Colson) who was killed in a car crash that happened while he was fooling around in his car with a pretty young woman (Linda Hayden). Ellen’s nightmares and paranoia about her husband’s infidelity cause her a lot of anxiety. And as the film progresses she tries to numb her emotional pain and strange visions with alcohol and pills that are often administrated by her husband and good friend. Are horrible crimes taking place in the old abandoned house next door or are they just a figment of Elizabeth Taylor’s disturbed mind? Is Laurence Harvey trying to kill Taylor or drive her mad and take control of her fortune? The surprising answers to these questions are unveiled in the film’s shocking climax!
Warning – before you keep reading I suggest stopping here unless you’re familiar with the film because there are spoilers ahead and being aware of the film’s important plot twists before you have the opportunity to see Night Watch can definitely ruin the effectiveness of the film!
On the surface, the plot of Night Watch appears to be similar to many “women-in-peril” thrillers, but just when you assume you know the direction the film is taking, Night Watch explodes in a bloody finale that’s sure to leave a few viewers shocked. Instead of playing the typical female victim prone to hysteria, Elizabeth Taylor’s charactor turns out to be a cold and calculating murderess who brutally kills her philandering husband and best friend before gracefully exiting the film in grand style.
Top: Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey
Bottom: Robert Lang and Billie Whitelaw
Night Watch was directed by the American director Brian G. Hutton whose other films include Where Eagles Dare (1968) with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, as well as Zee and Co. (1972) which also featured Elizabeth Taylor along with Michael Caine, Susannah York and Margaret Leighton (who was once married to Lawrence Harvey). In Night Watch, the director was able to create a suspenseful atmosphere and maintain it throughout the course of the film. Since the story takes place in London with a mostly British cast, the film is reminiscent of other great British thrillers released during the same period. The film also contains closeup shots of gloved hands and large kitchen knives that were commonly seen in numerous giallo films at the time. Hutton’s directing skills are really on display during Taylor’s extremely eerie and effective nightmare sequences, which are creatively shot with the help of the Oscar winning British cinematographer Billy Williams. The director manages to include some interesting visual clues that suggest that Elizabeth Taylor is controlling the events unfolding in the film. Taylor’s constantly seen playing with a puzzle and trying to fit the pieces together while the audience is left in the dark tripping over multiple red-herrings.
The Italian designer Valentino made all of Taylor’s outfits for the film and frankly I just get a big kick out seeing Taylor playing a crazy, hard-drinking, pill-popping woman wearing fabulous purple robes designed by Valentino. She also gets to wear some low-key Valentino tailored fashions in the film as well. Elizabeth Taylor was no longer the slender young woman seen in her earlier roles, but she still looks terrific in Night Watch and manages to make the most of her role. Her performance is surprisingly nuanced and probably somewhat inspired by Anthony Perkins turn as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Even the murders she commits in the film are slightly reminiscent of the way Bates killed his victims, but I’ve rarely seen an actor have so much fun pretending to slit throats. During the frantic murder scene at the end of the film Taylor looks utterly maniacal and plain frightening as she slashes her way through her costars.
None of the other actors in the film besides Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw and Robert Lang get more than a few minutes of screen time, which is a shame. I really like the British actress Linda Hayden who’s appeared in some great British horror films and she’s wonderfully creepy in Night Watch, but she has no dialogue in the film and if you blink you just might miss her.
Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey become friends on the set of Butterfield 8 and remained close until his untimely death. Both actors were heavy drinkers and their careers were in decline when they decided to team up again and make Night Watch in late 1972. Taylor and Harvey ended up having such a terrific time on the set of the film together that they started making plans to co-star in another thriller in the near future, but unfortunately it never happened. Harvey was diagnosed with cancer during the making of Night Watch and it’s assumed that he was in considerable pain during filming. His performance here is rather low-key and seems to suggest that he wasn’t feeling his best, but he’s still very believable as Taylor’s neglectful husband. Sadly, Laurence Harvey died just three months after Night Watch was released.
Top: Taylor channeling the spirit of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
Middle: Billie Whitelaw suffers the same fate as Janet Leigh in Psycho
Bottom: Comparison shot of Janet Leigh from Psycho
Night Watch is currently only available as a poor quality pan and scan video at the moment and I’d really like to see Brian G. Hutton’s film get restored and released on DVD since it should definitely hold appeal for Elizabeth Taylor fans and anyone who enjoys unusual Hitchcock inspired thrillers. I’ve heard rumors that a PAL Region 2 DVD of Night Watch might be released later this year, but I haven’t been able to confirm it anywhere. If anyone else happens to know anything about the rumored PAL Region 2 DVD release of Night Watch, please let me know!
If you’d like to see more images from the film please see my Night Watch Flickr Gallery.
* Note: The term “kill face” was borrowed from Arbogast on Film.