Death Watch (1980)

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Starring: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max Von Sydow

Also known as: La Mort En Direct (original title)

“People used to get ulcers, cancer, go mad.  We don’t let them anymore.” (Dr Mason, Deathwatch)


Sometimes a piece of cinema, deserving of a much larger audience, simply slips into obscurity without much so much as a whimper having been made in its defence. Conversely, the world is cluttered with DVD copies of films that should never have been made, let alone watched (not pointing any elbows). Our shops, and subsequently our shelves at home, are full of the kind of garbage that people hastily grab off shelves at 5pm on Christmas Eve shouting: “Ach, I’ll just get him this. It’s got that guy from The Transporter in it. He’s good, isn’t he?”

"Yes, I can read it. It says C... U... N... hmm, I can't read the rest of it. Ah, no, wait, I've got it. CUNNING."

At TWABM, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t occasionally point you in the direction of interesting films you may have forgotten about or missed altogether. French Director Bertrand Tavernier’s La Mort En Direct (or Death Watch, as it was known in the UK) is one such cult gem. It serves as a prophetic tale of the often cynical world of reality TV and also provides a fascinating snapshot of the city of Glasgow in the late 1970s. The film, never mass produced for DVD sale in the UK, should be considered essential viewing for cult cinema fans and will be of particular interest to Glaswegians. For one, Scottish audiences will no doubt marvel at a young Robbie Coltrane looking strangely slender in comparison to his Cracker heyday! 

Set in a future world not too dissimilar to our own, the story follows the last days of Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) as she comes to terms with the news that she is to fall prey to a rare terminal illness – in a time when premature death has been effectively eradicated. Ever on the lookout for compelling human stories to feed a TV audience desperate for genuine emotion, the rather unscrupulous television producer Vincent Ferriman (played with perfect callousness by Harry Dean Stanton) emerges to offer Katherine a lucrative deal. In exchange for a tidy sum and a trip to a destination of her choice, Ferriman wants to televise Mortenhoe’s final days on his show, Death Watch.  Stanton’s character brings to mind Ed Harris’ portrayal of the ruthless creator, Christof, in The Truman Show – he’s a bit of a prick, basically.

"I'm sorry my love, but Fawlty Towers just isn't coming back ever. John Cleese isn't even that funny any more."

Being something of a rare dissident in her brave new world, determined that she will face death on her own terms, Katherine decides to avoid any crass invasions of her privacy – but not before taking Ferriman’s money and legging it! Enter the ambitious young cameraman, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), who is ready to give chase after having gone through a revolutionary procedure to place camera lenses in his eyes, transmitting everything he sees to the masses at home. What follows is a love story, a lament for the lost dignity of death and a series of warnings about the ideals and technological advancements of future civilizations.

The city at the centre of the film is never named – presumably it represents any post industrial city. However, the location of Glasgow was always in the mind of Tavernier when he took on the project. Glaswegians may feel proud and slightly insulted in equal measure that Glasgow was chosen for its “glowering unease”. Yet, the city’s natives shouldn’t feel too offended as, in a recent interview with the Glasgow Film Theatre, Tavernier said: “There is a lot of beauty. There’s a moment I remember in the film – the Necropolis is stunningly beautiful.” Other locations familiar to Glaswegians will be the magnificent City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral and the banks of the River Clyde. The juxtaposition between the soot-blackened, Victorian landscape of Glasgow and the rustic beauty of the final scenes in Kintyre is one of the most interesting aspects of the film.

"Steady on mate, I didn't realise you were John Cleese's bloody agent"

The pace of the film is quite slow but the story is lit up by several memorable scenes. A particularly powerful scene is the early exchange between Katherine and her rather sinister family doctor who has allowed the Death Watch cameras to secretly film the meeting in which he breaks the news of the young woman’s terminal condition. Likewise, as the pace picks up towards the end, Harvey Keitel shines as the cameraman who starts to question his actions. Despite a distinguished career, Keitel has rarely made such an impact as when, towards the end of this film, he goes… well, a bit mental really.

Thankfully, it seems Glasgow distributor Park Circus has recently managed to secure the rights to put this forgotten classic back on big screens later in the year. If you cannot wait, we recommend you hunt down a French DVD copy and see for yourself what mass audiences have been missing for years. Alternatively, there may or may not be some dodgy youtube user with a very good quality copy of the full film, in English, in one streamable video. We couldn’t possibly say for sure though. Get digging. You won’t be disappointed.

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