Deathwatch (1980)

deathwatch 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Everyone watches her die.

Based on the David Compton novel this story deals with Katherine (Romy Schneider) who is living in a futuristic society where almost all diseases can be cured and death is very rare. When she is diagnosed with having a rare and incurable illness Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) tries to get her to appear on his hit reality show ‘Deathwatch’ in which they film in documentary style a person’s slow and agonizing death, which is a huge TV hit. When Katherine tries to escape the publicity and hide from their cameras Vincent has a small camera surgically implanted into the brain of Roddy (Harvey Keitel) one of his cameramen, which then allows  Roddy to follow Katherine around and record her actions without her knowing it. The two then slowly form a relationship that culminates with tragic results.

Director Bertrand Tavernier is in top form. The movie is nicely paced and Tavernier shows a perfect grasp of the material. His use of music wonderfully accentuates the mood and tone. Filmed on-location in Scotland he captures the old buildings of the region with a stylish flair that gives the film an added personality and memorable image. Showing characters walking all alone in the seemingly abandoned streets hits home their loneliness and having the scenes done in decaying buildings and neighborhoods illustrates the decaying values and morals of the world these characters live in. The gray stormy skies brings out the pictures moodiness and the isolated shack in the middle of a vast empty field that the two hide out in captures visually the characters lost and hopeless desperation. The film becomes like an orchestral ensemble moved along by a talented conductor at the peak of his skill.

This is also a great example of using a hand-held camera sparingly and only to create a certain mood, or emotion. Too many films these days seem to have what I call ‘the shaking camera syndrome’ and it is annoying and loses the original intended effect. Here Tavernier employs it during a scene where Katherine is trying to elude the production crew and the viewer feels her frantic tension with each move that the camera makes as well as getting a great cultural feel by capturing the various street vendors along the way.

The story itself is fascinating and years ahead of its time. The issues it brings out about television, ratings, and the cutthroat ugly world of business of entertainment have never been more on-target. This film may even transcend the classic Network with its dire message and that is not easy to do. What I really liked though was the fact that the twists keep coming in layers and all of them are unexpected, but equally fascinating. The story is riveting and compelling from beginning to end.

Schneider is brilliant and beautiful as always giving another one of her impeccable performances. Her character is easily identifiable and the viewer immediately gains her sympathy. She shows an array of different emotions and traits making her a fascinating three-dimensional person. Her presence is the main ingredient that propels the film and without her none of it would have worked and her gorgeous natural smile is wonderful and manages to come on display briefly despite the ugly difficulties of her character.

Keitel is in fine form as well playing a character who finds that when one works for those who are more than willing to exploit others they themselves will eventually be exploited by them as well. Von Sydow appears near the very end and lends stature to the proceedings.

I hate to bring this up because I love the film’s visual design, but I did find it a bit odd that the story is about the hi-tech future and yet all we are shown are old buildings and other gadgets that look very much like they are from the 1980’s. The computer that Katherine works on is laughably archaic and I felt from that end they could have tried harder to create a little more of a futuristic impression. Also, the name of the network ‘NTV’ sounds a little too much like the cable network that used to show music videos.

The recent Blu-ray release from the Shout Factory is excellent and restores the film to its original runtime of 130 minutes. I highly recommend this to those who enjoy Sci-fi fare that is thought provoking and original.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: January 23, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 10Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Studio: Gaumont International

Available: VHS (1Hour 57Minute Version), DVD, Blu-ray

21 responses to “Deathwatch (1980)

  1. Have you read Compton’s novel? The level of technology is the same as well — almost all of Compton’s sci-fi takes place in the near future, just a few years after the time he’s writing. Hence, the level of tech is very similar, remember, we’re in an era where tech wasn’t changing as rapidly as now.

    • No, I have not read Compton’s novel, so the point you make is a good one. I was just saying that the average viewer will be expecting a much different technological design from a sci-fi movie than what you get here although I really like the look of this film nonetheless.

  2. You should read the novel (in UK published as The Continuous Katherine Moretenhoe, in the US as The Unsleeping Eye) — one of the sci-fi masterworks of the early 70s. His best — with Synthajoy and Farewell Earth’s Bliss close behind.

  3. From the description, I thought this was a current movie when it first popped up on Instant. I was pretty surprised to see it was 1980.

    • Why were you surprised? What made it seem like a “modern” plot? In terms of sci-fi movies, they often use really really old ideas. The novel is from the early 70s so an 80s adaptation is quite soon.

      • It sounded so much like reality TV: “Roddy, a journalist, has a device implanted in his brain that turns him into a camera. His employers instruct him to follow a dying woman 24 hours a day so her final hours will be broadcast live on the TV show “Death Watch.” ”

        I don’t really do much sci-fi, so I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms.

      • Yah, there’s a huge early 70s movement ’bout the potential dangers of media — Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, Compton’s The Unsleeping Eye (what this film is adapted from), Malzberg’s Revelations (my personal favorite) etc etc. They all predicted reality television…. Revelations is essentially Jerry Springer on drugs with drugged participants….

    • I know what you mean Retro Hound. The story and film has a chilling prophetic quality to it and is right on-target with its perception of Reality TV as we know it today.

  4. You should also remember that the first “modern” reality TV show was in 1973… An American Family…. So, the film or the book is not exactly prophetic but did “predict” a much more vicious type of reality TV — perhaps…

    • You are really on top of everything Joachim. ‘American Family’ was the first reality show. It covered the Loud Family as I remember and it aired on PBS. Supposedly it was just to be a look at the typical life of an average family and it started out that way, but then the wife wanted a divorce and their son came out and announced that he was gay. Albert Brooks did a parody on it in 1979 called ‘Real Life’, which was pretty funny.

      • Hehe, I’m a PhD student in History (although, medieval history — regardless, I love any sort of history)….

      • History is a fascinating subject and an intersting major. So it sounds like you are still going to school. How old are you? What school are you going to? Is it here in the states, or abroad?

      • I’m a 4th year PhD student — will defend my diss. proposal in probably two weeks. This is a pseudonym so I’ll remain anonymous — i.e. where I go to school etc — but it is in the US.

  5. Happy to finally read your review, Richard. And I have to agree with your criticism. It’s too bad they couldn’t simply avoid showing any gadgetry altogether. Most of my favorite moments take place outside the city, especially when Katherine looks more at peace.

    By the way, I should be receiving both “Good Neighbor Sam” and “Boccaccio ’70” next week. So I’ll be coming back this way to read your reviews and share my comments with you then. Thanks for writing about Romy. 🙂

  6. Ultimately more disturbing and thought-provoking than Network!

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