Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: DEATH WATCH (1980)

(France/Germany - 1980; 1982 US release)

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.  Written by David Rayfiel and Bertrand Tavernier.  Cast: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow, Bernhard Wicki, Therese Liotard, Vadim Glowna, William Russel, Caroline Langrishe, Robbie Coltrane. (R, 130 mins).

In a near-future society where disease has been almost completely eliminated, Catherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is diagnosed with an extremely rare terminal illness.  Unscrupulous TV exec Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) tries to cajole her into appearing on DEATH WATCH, a reality-TV show where his camera crews will follow her as she lives out her final days, giving viewers the rare chance to see someone dying of something other than natural causes or old age.  She agrees, only to provide money for her husband (Vadim Glowna), but arranges an escape from the camera crews farely quickly.  Ferriman sends cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel)--who has a camera implanted in his eyes--after her. Finding her at a church shelter, Roddy befriends the dying Catherine, and unbeknownst to her, is filming her for the DEATH WATCH broadcast. Complications arise when Roddy develops feelings for Catherine, who's on her way to visit her ex-husband (Max von Sydow), and die with dignity, on her own terms.  Roddy also has to manage the fact that, because of the camera implantation, he has to have a constant light source and can't close his eyes for more than a few seconds or it will cause near-instant blindness (one glaring weakness of the film is that it never sufficiently explains how Roddy sleeps, other than him saying "I never did sleep much. I always felt that I'd miss something").

Catherine (Romy Schneider) on the run
with Roddy (Harvey Keitel), unaware that
he's filming her for DEATH WATCH.
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier (COUP DE TORCHON, ROUND MIDNIGHT), who co-wrote with frequent collaborator David Rayfiel, this sci-fi art film is, in retrospect, filled with surprisingly prescient visions of today's reality TV and a media and schadenfreude-obsessed, tragedy-as-entertainment culture ("Death is the new pornography," says Ferriman). I'm surprised this hasn't been remade.  Quietly released in the US by Quartet Films in 1982, about a month before Schneider's sudden death from cardiac arrest at just 43 (her 14-year-old son died a year earlier after being impaled on a spiked fence he was attempting to climb, and it was a tragedy from which Schneider never recovered), this vanished quickly but eventually found a cult thanks to home video and late-night TV airings in the 1980s.  It benefits from a genuinely jarring feel throughout--European production, Americans and Europeans in the cast, shot in Scotland, and is quite unique in the sci-fi, "futuristic" genre, in that it largely looks just like 1980 Glasgow (except for a great THEY LIVE-esque moment in a huge, Costco-type supermarket, with subliminal "Don't steal...you'll feel much better if you don't" messages loudly playing over the speaker system). It loses a little momentum near the end with a few long monologues from von Sydow, but the climax is quite emotional and well-played by the actors. The beautiful Schneider has rarely been better, and she and Keitel work very well together, despite their reportedly not getting along all that well. It's interesting seeing Keitel and Stanton in such odd (for them) settings. They seem to be improvising in many of their scenes together.

Schneider with Harry Dean Stanton as network exec Vincent Ferriman

DEATH WATCH was just released in a Blu-ray/DVD set from Shout Factory, and presents Tavernier's uncut European version for the first time in the US.  Running 12 minutes longer than the US version, the European DEATH WATCH is a great example of how small edits and subtle changes can make a completely different film.


In the US cut, Catherine is legitimately sick.  In the European cut, Ferriman's subject dies earlier than expected and, needing a new "star," he bribes Catherine's doctor (William Russel) into convincing her that she's got two months to live.  The doctor gives her a painkiller prescription, but it's the pills that are designed to make her feel sick when she's really not, and the whole plan is to have her be miraculously "cured" at the end of the show's run.  It's established early on that it's all scripted by Ferriman and the network (Roddy is not involved in that aspect of the plan; he thinks Catherine is truly ill) to maximize ratings and profits.  The European cut is even more tragic and cynical in its critique of corporate greed and the invasive, rubbernecking nature of reality TV.

The ending and Ferriman's motivation are the biggest differences in the US and European cuts, with the doctor getting some added commentary like "What a circus," and "Drug her and make her sick, then 'cure' her, all for what? Ratings?" but the European version also includes a scene with Catherine visiting her dementia-stricken father (Bernhard Wicki) in a mental hospital. Wicki remained credited in the US cut, but was nowhere to be found.

Trailer for the film's 2012 UK re-release

Shout Factory's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack also finally allows North American fans to see DEATH WATCH in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The US version was released on VHS by Embassy Home Entertainment, and looked atrocious in a washed-out, faded, and hideously-cropped 1.33:1.  The Blu-ray is a revelation in terms of detail, textures, and color.  The only extra is a photo gallery that runs just over a minute.  A more comprehensive package, or at least an interview with Tavernier, would've been nice, but it's enough of an event to have this ambitious, thinking person's sci-fi film at long last available in its intended version after all these years.  It's a dark, scathing, brilliant and beautifully-shot film that's more relevant and powerful than ever.  Is it much of a stretch for the 1980 science-fiction of DEATH WATCH to become as real as the 1976 satire of NETWORK that's happening on cable news and countless tabloid TV shows every hour of every day?

Shout Factory's Blu-ray artwork

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