Brian G. Hutton’s Night Watch (1973)

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.

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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.

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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.

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18 thoughts on “Brian G. Hutton’s Night Watch (1973)

  1. Vanwall says:

    One of Liz’s better works from that period, and a kind of neurotic/eroticism was her specialty by then. Poor Harvey looked tentative and ill, which of course he was, but it wasn’t something expected at all. Whitelaw is totally eclipsed by Taylor, tho, poor thing. This was a very well produced, straightforward suspense film that would’ve faded away quietly without Liz’s surprisingly vital performance – the throat-cutting is right up there with Brando being offed by Nicholson in “The Missouri Breaks”, altho it’s enactment is much more lush and almost over the top – Liz must’ve had fun! I like the lighting more on Whitelaw’s corpse than Leigh’s – Sternberg would’ve been proud – he had a thing about lighting women’s faces. 😉 I hope it does come out on DVD soon, but my guess is sooner or later all Taylor’s films will be available – she’s too iconic for the Studios to pass up that opportunity, with a ready-made audience. Fine job, Kimberly.

  2. Jonathan Lapper says:

    This is one Taylor movie I’ve never seen (at least not in it’s entirety). I saw parts of it years ago (probably TBS or WGN or some early cable station like that) and had completely forgotten about it until this. I skipped over the spoiler section so as not to ruin it when I do see it.

    And Arbo does so enjoy getting his kill face on, your post should make him very happy.

  3. Keith says:

    I’ve seen parts of this film, but never the whole thing. I guess it was on some cable station years ago. What I saw I really enjoyed. I don’t think I remembered the title of it until I read your blog post and saw the pictures. It sounds great. I was careful not to read the spoilers. I do want to check this one out.

  4. cinebeats says:

    Vanwall – I’m glad I’m not the only person who’s seen and enjoyed this film. I could spend hours writing about all the Hitchcockian elements in Night Watch, but I figured no one would care much but me. 😉 I really hope you’re right about the studios releasing all of Taylor’s films on DVD in the future. Most of her late sixties and seventies films were considered critical disasters and failed to make much box office so I suspect that the studios don’t think they’ll get much of a return on DVD sales either.

    Jonathan & Keith – I hope you both get a chance to see this sometime. If you’re a Hitchcock fan, it’s really fun to watch just to spot all the Hitchcockian references and I think it’s a genuinely suspenseful film, plus a crazy drunk pill-popping Taylor can be damn fun to watch!

  5. ARBOGAST says:

    I saw this many years ago and remember almost nothing about it apart from a vague dissatisfaction and a throbbing urge to rub up against Billie Whitelaw. God, that scary woman sends me. I should see this again.

  6. semiosteve says:

    It is so strange. I was just telling my 25 year old daughter and her husband about this film yesterday, and I wasn’t absolutely sure I remembered the name correctly. Then I stumble on this great site and here it is.

    This film scared the pants of me at the time and was also aesthetically and technically terrific. In fact, I suspect it would stand up very well today (where blood and special effects mask script weakness and lack of acting).

    Do yourself a favor and skip the trip to the mall cineplex and find a copy of this genuine gem.

    Now does anyone remember “Don’t Look Now” ? My wife cried because than one was even scarier and weirder..

  7. frank anderson says:

    Brian Hutton was such an odd director choice for this film. Up to this point in his career he was the king of mayhem, the master of overly orchestrated violence. I remember reading about the complicated ballet of explosives, movement and camera placement he needed for a battle scene in “Kelly’s Heroes.”
    “Night Watch” was very enjoyable. Going to the movies during this era was not. Audiences attendance was at an all time
    low. I as 15 when this film came out and like many of the movies noted in your blog (I’ve seen most of them), I viewed it in an empty theater. By the way, at the same time “Night Watch” came out in the theaters, both “Boom” and “Dr Faustus” were playing weeknights on The CBS Late Night Movie, competing with Johnny Carson. Thanks for your excellent work. I’ve spread the word as much as I can. I love it.

  8. Campaspe says:

    Oooh, I have seen this one too, ages ago and I am sure I watched it for Laurence Harvey, an uneven actor in my view but so damn gorgeous I frequently don’t care.

    ***POSSIBLE SPOILER***

    The twist ending was well-done and it’s great to know it was based on something written by the woman who wrote Sorry, Wrong Number, since that movie’s attitude toward its victim always bothered the hell out of me. As I recall, deep down I didn’t really believe Elizabeth Taylor would murder anybody but it was sure fun watching her do it.

  9. cinebeats says:

    Arbogast – Billie Whitelaw is an odd looking bird, but I like her a lot. She reminds me of David Bowie’s less attractive older sister. She’s actually really good in this and I should have mentioned her terrific performance more.

    semiosteve – Thanks for stopping by! I found the film really creepy when I first watched it too. There’s something really unnerving about the atmosphere at times and that creepy old dark house that everyone in the film ends up in at some point is very eerie! And indeed, I have seen Don’t Look Now and it’s a favorite of mine. It even made my list of “31 Films That Give Me the Willies” which I compiled at Halloween.

    Frank – Thanks so much for the nice words about my blog! I try to write about lessor known films as much as possible in an effort to introduce them to more people. I would loved to have seen Night Watch in a theater when it was released! Hutton was a strange choice to direct this film. I suspect he might have taken the project since he had previously worked with Taylor and Burton on other films. Maybe Taylor suggested him? I was trying to find more background about the making of the movie but I didn’t come across much at all I’m afraid.

    Campaspe – I fully agree about Harvey. His acting was uneven and occasionally over-the-top, but he was so damn gorgeous. Like Taylor, he’s a personal favorite actor of mine just because he’s so wonderful to watch in anything, no matter how lackluster the film. Lucille Fletcher is a fascinating writer and after I wrote this, I added some of her books to my Amazon wish list. I really want to read some of her thrillers.

  10. ARBOGAST says:

    Billie Whitelaw is an odd looking bird, but I like her a lot. She reminds me of David Bowie’s less attractive older sister.

    I kind of go for a mannish woman. I like her especially bitchy, as in Hitchcock’s FRENZY, and tend not to like her so much in girly roles (as in FLESH AND THE FIENDS). I recommend her in THE KRAYS, as the Mum from Hell.

  11. Eksantrik Presler says:

    As one might expect, the film is a bit dated but nonetheless compelling. When I first saw Night Watch I was completely mesmerized by Liz Taylor’s performance. The “murder scenes” that she observed from her window at night were used masterfully by the director. I believe that the director of “What Lies Beneath” must surely have paid homage to this classic because several scenes are strikingly similar. The tension builds slowly as does the mystery until you’re shown the knife rack in the kitchen with the one missing knife. About that time you’re beginning to wish you’d opted for the Disney film. The film’s last 10 minutes of frenzy are etched forever in my mind and come to the forefront whenever I try to recall truly terrifying moments in cinema. I do hope that future generations will be able to experience this film even though it hasn’t had the notoriety so many other films have enjoyed.

  12. Anbreen says:

    I guess this is what the Net is for!

    I have been looking for two flicks for YEARS!

    I was very intrigued by the beginning of a Liz Taylor flick I saw years ago. All I could remember was that her character was very good at puzzles, and that there was a husband and BFF.

    I could feel some tension building, and I wanted to see how she’d stay ahead of it, by using her puzzle-solving skill. I’ve been haunted by it since.

    Today I found it, in “Night Watch.”

    The other was a Mia Farrow flick. Excellent performance. Surprise ending– scared the crap outta me. It turned out to be called, “Full Circle,”AKA “The Haunting of Julia.”

    Thanks!

  13. Jackie says:

    I saw this movie with a friend when it came out. I was 10 yrs old. I was never fond of horror movies and though this is deemed a thriller, it scared me. I’ve never been able to remember the name of this movie until doing a search of it now, but I remember the basic premise of the movie. In particular, I was haunted by that evil smile that spreads across her face when she realizes what’s actually going on. You know, the smile as she’s hiding behind the curtain with the knife in her hand? The smile scared me so much because it was the same smile I’d seen when I’d witnessed a violent traumatic act at a much younger age.

    Elizabeth Taylor did a great job in this movie.

  14. Mary says:

    I saw this movie for the first time at the movie theatre when it came out in 1973.I loved it.I was terrified and scared out of my wits!Elizabeth was in a most unusual movie part and I was fascinated by her,Laurence Harvey and Billie Whitelaw.The cast in this wonderful thriller was absolutely fabulous.I love the music, the sets, and of course Elizabeth’s costumes for the movie.Her costumes were so rich and beautiful like they were in Cleopatra.The song at the end was beautiful.I cannot say enough about this fabulous thriller.

  15. prodeep says:

    it is funny, but i have been trying to get a hold of a dvd for years now, if for no other reason than to relive this gem of a movie. one can obviously reference a lot of hitchcockian moments. but the ending is brilliantly executed, and even the master has possibly done nothing better except in vertigo.

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