I don’t have any recall of the 1973 mystery thriller NIGHT WATCH back in the day, but it’s been on my radar since Stephen King named it one of his “20 Scariest Movies of All Time” in his terrific book Danse Macabre.
When I saw TCM was airing it in all its early seventies glory this month, I finally had the chance to check it out. The closest thing to a horror film she ever made in her long career, Elizabeth Taylor offers up her high strung, high maintenance best as Ellen Wheeler. Wealthy, wrapped in designer wear and enjoying her afternoon cocktails with best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) she seems a bit bored and slightly off center.
Her attorney husband John (Laurence Harvey oozing proper British wealth) isn’t home very much, leaving Ellen to wander the gilded house and garden, where she spends much of her time curious about the massive, vacant, and gone-to-seed mansion next door.
During one of the film’s MANY stormy nights, as lightning flashes and thunder booms, Ellen sees what she thinks is a murdered man in the window across the street at the dilapidated house. She screams uncontrollably that the man was sitting in a big chair in the window, his throat slit.
The police are called and Inspector Walker arrives post haste with a team of policemen and detectives who find….nothing.
Sarah and John give Ellen some tranquilizers and put her to bed, but the next day, she wonders why her neighbor Mr. Appleby is suddenly digging a grave size hole in his garden. Ellen begins a series of events where everyone seems capable of murder. Calling Inspector Walker six times the next day, she begins to wear out her welcome and appear both unbalanced and laughable.
It’s not long before Ellen calls the Inspector again to scream that she’s now seen a murdered woman with her throat slit in the same room (on yet another stormy night).
Based on a stage play by Lucille Fletcher and directed by Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare), the plot spins away cleverly with enough red herrings to keep the most avid mystery reader guessing.
As Sarah, Billie Whitelaw impresses, playing the exact opposite of her role Mrs. Blaylock in “The Omen” that would explode in America three years later. Tony Britton (The Day of the Jackal) is flawless as a psychiatrist friend of John’s and Bill Dean is damn funny as the put-upon Inspector Walker.
There are two major plot reveals that are supposed to be jaw dropping. One I saw coming a mile away and the second still holds up pretty well. Taylor is surprising here, offering up a character that I thought I had figured out, until she turns everything upside down. Halfway through I thought she was way over the top, but by the final frames, she made me rethink things.
Fast paced, wrapped in a gothic horror feel and very enjoyable, NIGHT WATCH deserves a glance. While I wouldn’t call it one of the scariest movies ever like King does, I can appreciate what he sees in it. It’s got plenty of suspense, twists and turns and earns a stormy B.