Cinema Resuscitation: Bertrand Tavernier on Death Watch
What’s the best Scottish film you’ve never heard of? Death Watch is the answer.
Almost unseen since its release in 1980, this Glasgow-set science fiction film has attained a mythical status among UK film fans too young to remember its tiny theatrical run or its single BBC broadcast. It concerns Roddy (played by Harvey Keitel), a naive cameraman for the sleazy TV snuff-show of the title, who has a camera surgically implanted in his eye so he can surreptitiously document the last days of Katherine (Romy Schneider), a beautiful young writer who’s terminally ill. Rejoice, though: this prescient tale about death and reality television is being resurrected from cult obscurity by Glasgow distribution company Park Circus.
As is often the case with acute depictions of cities, this paean to Glasgow was not made by a local, but by the askance eye of French film-maker Bertrand Tavernier. “I fell in love with the city, I think it was the end of a morning in 1977,” the 71-year-old tells me by phone from his home in Lyon. Listening to his ardour for my own home town, I’m reminded of the opening monologue from Manhattan. You know the one: 'He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion...' For Tavernier, nowhere else would do for his heartbreaking sci-fi. “I wanted a certain kind of urban destruction, an urban beauty,” he rhapsodises. “The tremendous beauty of some of those streets, the atmosphere: you had a feeling of what it had been like twenty years, forty years, a century ago. It was a city of the working class, and that leaves scars, that leaves memories, which are very strong and it’s why I wanted to set the film there.”
This romantic attachment to Glasgow is there for all to see in Death Watch. Shot wide on CinemaScope and peppered with melodramatic camera flourishes, the city has never looked so majestic. Tavernier describes re-watching the film recently and being caught off guard by its passion for its settings. “The fact I did so many camera movements with the crane to describe the different nuances of green in the countryside and the stone of those great red and black buildings: you clearly see it’s a declaration of love. I was falling in love with Scotland – its landscapes, its sky.”
Expressive direction isn’t the only reason to welcome this re-release. The raw, tender performances from Death Watch’s leads are also to be cherished. “Romy,” sighs Tavernier affectionately, “we wrote the film for her.” Schneider, who died of a heart attack, aged 43, only a few years after Death Watch’s release, is at her tremulous best as Katherine, a writer frustrated by a world where bestselling novels are authored by computer programs. “She was such an immense actress and she was always right about emotion. She came to me before the shoot and she wrote a simple note, which said, ‘I will be your Katherine without self pity,’ and this is the character.” Casting Keitel opposite Schneider – over the studio's favoured Richard Gere – was also a no-brainer. The Mean Streets actor’s star was on the wane at the fag end of the 70s, but Tavernier recognised his qualities. “I never considered anybody else, I immediately wanted Harvey because he has that great capacity to mix charm and guilt; [his character] Roddy is somebody who is immature but knows deep inside himself that what he does is not completely right.”
To call Tavernier’s vision ahead of its time would be an understatement. Take your TV remote and start flipping through channels and you’ll see a voyeuristic mosaic of the kind of human misery that Roddy’s scurrilous boss (played with devilish charm by Harry Dean Stanton) peddles to the baying masses. “I feel that a lot of things in Death Watch are right, but I am a bit sad to be right,” he tells me. “There is a line which I love in the film written by David Rayfiel [co-screenwriter with Tavernier]: when Romy says to Harry Dean, the TV mogul, she says, ‘For you, everything is of importance and nothing matters.’ I think this is the definition of what I see on TV: some things matter for one day and will be forgotten the next. He was pointing at something which was not only true, but alas, so very depressing.”