There is little more exciting than picking an unfamiliar rental on a lark – maybe the cover is compelling, or the cast is noteworthy – and having it absolutely blow your mind. Elizabeth Taylor, at the tail end of her Golden Age career and the start of her graceful transition to genre scream queen, delivered one such gem: Night Watch (1973), directed by Brian Hutton and written by both Evan Jones and Tony Williamson.
Adapted from the play of the same name by Lucille Fletcher (of Sorry, Wrong Number fame), Night Watch is a grisly, gruesome, hypnotic, frenetically-pitch subversion of the ubiquitous “woman in peril” pictures of the last century. The formula mandated a precariously employed icon of yore – perhaps Joan Crawford or Olivia de Havilland – pitted against nasty men in a nasty world. They were gaslit, abused, and perched near death until a triumphant show of strength in the final reel. The formula was occasionally punctuated with high-concept exhibitions – make some mentally ill, for instance, or perhaps render them blind – but the results were always the same. Histrionic Hollywood legends running for their lives. Spoilers follow.
Night Watch is different. Very, very different. Director Brian Hutton has brandished a cinematic knife and flayed skin. The movie is loud, propulsive, hypnotic, and genuinely disorientating. The exquisite urban London mise-en-scene and expressionist angles, complete with on-screen spirals and hypnosis, are beguiling. Hutton is working with cinematic poetry, a vivid, resonant, and evocative tapestry of grindhouse screams and elevated studio thrills.
Elizabeth Taylor, already an icon slowly slipping into fragrance and retirement, holds the entire enterprise together, exhibiting the same inimitable control of tone she did in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). It’s a masterful performance of a woman not just pushed to the brink, but already over it, drowning in a chasm of obscurity, grief, and resentment. She stars as Ellen Wheeler, a woman who, during a raucous, interminable thunderstorm, witnesses a murder in the house next door.
Filmed in 1973, Night Watch likely never intended to have its aspect ratio stretched and pinned across giant television sets, and the few copies available (a lackluster DVD and a rental on Prime Video) are grainy and arid, manageable but considerably short of spectacular. It’s hard to see the murder, and several times, I had to pause and rewind, hoping to catch a glimpse of something. I soldiered on, however, accepting that the constraints of screening old films on modern mediums rendered it impossible to depict properly.
Ellen calls the police, though naturally, they find nothing in the big, gothic mansion across the way. Her new husband, John (Laurence Harvey), is dripping with disbelief, as is her best friend, Sarah (Billie Whitelaw). Skepticism, alongside ornate paintings and gilded wallpaper, are the décor du jour.
Ellen demands a neighbor dig up a newly planted bed of Laburnum in his garden, convinced the bodies are buried there, and genuinely walks around erratically, lobbing accusations every which way. Years prior, she recovered from a mental breakdown after her first husband, Carl, was killed alongside his lover in an auto accident. Consigned to identifying the bodies at the local morgue, Ellen never quite recovered, and those in her orbit easily attribute her new psychosis to that longstanding trauma.
Only, Ellen isn’t insane. If anything, she’s saner than she’s ever been before. As the final act trundles toward its conclusion and the twists arrive with the fatality of a blade’s edge, Night Watch becomes something akin to Gone Girl meets Rear Window. Ellen is involuntarily committed to an institution in the mountains, and on the night she’s prepared to leave, John convinces her to sign several documents, including one granting him power of attorney over all their financial holdings. She notices, though, that the company listed on the documents is the same company that owns the property where she witnessed the murder. She confronts him, accusing him of having an affair with Sarah and plotting to drive her insane in order to commit her and gain control over their every asset.
Ellen flees to the old house as John and Sarah chase after her. Night Watch then becomes something like a slasher film, as Ellen lures them upstairs and then lunges at them, stabbing them to death with a butcher knife and positioning their bodies in the way she originally reported during the first thunderstorm. See, Ellen never saw a murder. It wasn’t on account of grainy film texture and poor focus – there was nothing there to see at all. Ellen manufactured the entire scheme to murder both John and Ellen in such a way that, en route to her institution, there’s little chance it could be pinned on her.
It’s a vicious, caustic ending, one with considerably more gore and blood than audiences might suspect from a ’70s psycho-thriller. It is also incredible. Just as Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn remarked that women can, and should be, just pragmatically evil, not beholden to the antiquated ideal that women are innately good, Taylor’s Ellen is no woman in peril. She’s a scheming, cunning, dangerously smart woman eager to secure what’s hers, eager to secure what she’s owed. It helps that the movie around her is so damned good. It’s scary, intoxicating, and deliciously dangerous.
Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioral health and has been a horror fan since birth. His favorites include Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ’80s slasher films. You can find him on Twitter at @chaddiscollins.