Death Watch (1980)

Genres - Science Fiction  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Sci-Fi  |   Run Time - 128 min.  |   Countries - Germany , France   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Nathan Southern

Helmed by director Bertrand Tavernier, from a screenplay that he and David Rayfiel adapted from David Compton's 1975 science fiction novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe), Death Watch reintroduces themes that Rayfiel explored in his screenplay for Lipstick (1976). Both pictures probe the issues of media voyeurism and contemporary society's chauvinistic objectification of women. But whereas Lipstick devolves and regresses into morally reprehensible, exploitative junk, and demonstrates no respect for its characters, Death Watch is contemplative, sensitive, and humane. For its first 30 minutes, the picture gives off the same sort of cold creeps as that earlier Rayfiel outing, and appears to be headed down an equally sickening path. But the film then takes a sharp, unexpected left turn. Tavernier and Rayfiel make a fascinating choice regarding their main character, reality television subject Katherine (Romy Schneider), by having her commit a morally questionable and calculating act of deception. This was a masterstroke, for it shifts the tonal balance of the film slightly; we see Katherine as less of a victim (and less helpless) than she would otherwise be.Rayfiel and Tavernier also understand the importance of bringing Katherine's victimizer, TV network cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) face to face with the ickiness of his own actions, and having him commit an act of penitence in the film's last third that redeems him in the eyes of Katherine and the audience. Less credible is the suddenness of Roddy's transformation -- Keitel seems so mechanical during the first hour that the change feels a bit too abrupt. Nonetheless, the idea behind his arc (self-liberation from the "machinery" in his head and the process of regaining his own humanity) makes perfect sense. Moreover, the film ends on a particularly affirming note for Roddy, who delivers a stunning last line. In a pivotal role, Harry Dean Stanton permeates his interpretation of TV network head Vincent Ferriman ("death is the new pornography") with a morose sleaziness, and Max von Sydow (as Mortenhoe's ex-husband) gives an exemplary performance in the final act. Most impressive, however, is the ill-fated Schneider, who committed suicide three years after the production of this film, following an onslaught of devastating personal tragedies. Still under-recognized, she was always one of the screen's great unsung treasures. Here, she glows throughout, and gives a multilayered and dazzling interpretation of Mortenhoe that unveils the full depth of her ability as an actress. She is missed.