When we think of the great cinematic media satires, most voices will defer quite rightly towards Sidney Lumet’s frighteningly ahead-of-its-time 1976 masterpiece Network. While recent favour tends to Peter Weir’s stunning The Truman Show, examining the intermediate years of these two films unearths some greatly under-appreciated efforts, such as Bertrand Tavernier’s chilly sci-fi satire Death Watch.
It is a curiosity that Harvey Keitel’s performance as Roddy – an MTV employee fitted with a camera recording everything he sees – remains one of his least-remembered while also being one of his best. Suffused with a memorably unassuming, creepily banal atmosphere – for Glasgow is hardly the first place one would imagine to situate a sci-fi film – Death Watch is, like Network, a morbid and cynical dissection of burgeoning new media. Embodied through Harry Dean Stanton’s unscrupulous TV producer Vincent Ferriman, we observe a media empire’s insatiable hunger for ratings, driven by rooting out those few taboos left, namely our very own demise.
Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is a successful author who is given the grim diagnosis that she is dying of an incurable disease. Roddy’s aim is to follow her around and document her final weeks for a new television programme called “Death Watch”. As a companion piece of sorts to Network, Death Watch forms part of a palpable one-two punch regarding the media of automation, where the imagination well has duly run dry, causing the powers that be to turn to mining the travails of real life. In a telling scene, Ferriman notes that the public are bored with glorification of death, the James Dean crash-and-burns of this world, and want to experience some natural, “real” degeneration of the human form. Memorably, Ferriman remarks “death is the new pornography”. Ironically, is it any less glorified?
Either fatally deluded or a true soldier of his cause, Stanton’s superbly-played Ferriman envisions no notion of individual privacy when pitted against the “concern” of public interest, an obsessive notion that hasn’t shifted much – in fact, only grown in its disturbing reach – since the film’s release. There is no self-consciousness to his character, therefore we determine he is a genuine proponent of the media machine rather than a paid stooge.
Naturally, while Roddy’s ruse in pursuing Katherine and helping to take care of her is a successful one, delighting the producers, it is not without its costs. The camera implantation procedure takes a physical toll on Roddy – preventing him from dreaming, constraining him to well-lit areas and forcing him to take “unsleeping pills” – and ultimately, he is as much, if not more so, a guinea pig than Katherine. His own private life becomes subject to the voyeurism of his superiors, and slowly, the dilemma of his predicament begins to unfurl. Keitel brings it home perfectly, with a heartening mixture of steeliness and veiled vulnerability. Chemistry also accounts for a lot here; Keitel and Schneider’s back-and-forth is a thrill to watch, yet scribe David Rayfiel resists shoehorning in a redundant love story. It is simply a tale of humanity, while the love abounds elsewhere.
Our cinematic and televised stories are frequently deconstructed as an effort of collective dreaming, but how is this reconfigured when they merely reflect “real life”? There’s keen philosophy present here – owed likely to Tavernier’s contribution – that combines with the Hollywood star magnetism of lead Keitel to create a pleasantly unruly, peculiar sci-fi mix that is rarely seen nowadays. Even with its tendency towards contemplation and stray strands, it isn’t above a few barmy plot twists, and a relatively unpleasant final reel.
Much like Lumet’s Network, Death Watch grows only more unsettling as the years pass. Also, keep an eye out for a young Robbie Coltrane cameoing as Katherine’s limo driver.
Death Watch is re-released in select UK cinemas from today.