The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Night Watch

In early 1972, Elizabeth Taylor turned 40. She and Richard Burton had been in Budapest since the beginning of the year, while Burton was shooting Bluebeard for Edward Dmytryk. As though to defy the seriousness of the milestone, Burton threw her a gala birthday party, featuring an enormous and star-studded guest list. His birthday present to her was the half-million-dollar Taj Mahal diamond. Yet in spite of these grand, opulent gestures, the event was still the symbolic end of youth for the World's Most Glamorous Actress.

Though neither Burton nor Taylor realized it, it was the beginning of the end of a great deal more.

Less than a month after Taylor's birthday, Burton learned of the death of his beloved brother, Ifor Jenkins. Five years earlier, Ifor had injured himself after a night drinking with Burton, and had been permanently paralyzed. The news of his brother's death wasn't entirely unexpected, but its effect on Burton was devastating. Dmytryk commented that when Burton returned from his brother's funeral, he was a different man. For several years up until that point, Burton had managed to control his near-legendary appetite for alcohol; but afterwards, overwhelmed by grief and guilt, he started drinking as he'd never drunk before.

But Burton's drinking was no mere attempt at escape: it was more of an attempt at self-annihilation. He'd seemed bent on destroying himself once before: Burton had given up everything — at the height of a respected stage career, and at a time when his home life should have been happiest — to launch his love affair with Taylor. Neither he nor Taylor had any idea that their notoriety would not only help them re-build their careers, but that it would make them the richest and most sought-after actors in history. But this resurrection was troubling to a man who knew the role of Doctor Faustus so well: it came at a terrible cost, and in the wake of the tragedy it became suddenly clear to him how much he'd really given up for this new idea of success. Ten years ago, he'd been bored by his success, and Taylor had brought him inspiration, fulfillment and great happiness. But after all this time, Burton the artist had become as unsatisfied with his life as Burton the man had been earlier. He'd not been on the professional stage in a decade, while the quality of the movies he'd done recently had not deserved his best effort, even if he'd been inclined to give it. Suddenly the peaks of his fame, wealth and notoriety seemed no longer so high, while the troughs of his film career loomed like the valley of the shadow of death.

At least, that's what the entertainment press insinuated at the time. And it wasn't a difficult assumption to make — Taylor, who also knew the story of Faustus, resented the implications tremendously. This much is true, though: about nine months after Ifor died, on the set of Divorce His, Divorce Hers, an inebriated Burton broke down in mid-shoot. He had to be escorted from the studio, all the while screaming, "I could have been King Lear!" (He could have been King Lear, but his inner Mephistopheles ensured he never would be: though he had eleven more years to live and would eventually be offered the role of Lear, by that point he had so ruined his health that the production would have to be cancelled.)

And in the face of this kind of crisis, not even his relationship with Taylor could survive unaltered. In his younger days as a stage actor, he had habitually slept with his leading ladies — a habit endured if not ignored by his then-wife Sibyl — but Burton had always remained scrupulously faithful to Taylor. After his brother's death, though, he allowed himself a brief, trivial fling with one of his co-stars in Bluebeard, Nathalie Delon. "Once I found myself attracted to other women," Burton said later, "I knew — the game's up." Word of Burton's infidelity got to Taylor before the sheets were even cool, and she was livid. Burton was suitably contrite, and Taylor soon allowed him to come home; but it was the beginning of the end of their marriage. From this point on, their relationship became less and less a grand passion and more like a lingering addiction.

Of course, as juicy as the story may sound, it's all irresponsible speculation on my part. I have no idea how much of it is true, and I'm certainly unqualified to speak about the couple's psychological state. I didn't know any of this until I had to start researching for the current B-Masters' Roundtable, so I'm paraphrasing from a half-dozen vaguely disreputable sources. My own interest in the whole Burton-Taylor melodrama is purely paleontological: I hadn't given Elizabeth Taylor any thought at all over the last fifteen years or so — you can only see the tabloid headlines about ELIZABETH TAYLOR'S BRAVE LAST DAYS! for so long before you start to tune them out. When I heard she'd passed away in March 2011, my first thought was: Liz Taylor was still alive? Less than a month later, the death of a different Liz, Elisabeth Sladen, had a much greater impact on me.

But I do have a reason for bringing up all this old gossip. It was just after Burton's tryst with Nathalie Delon that Taylor started the preparations for her only out-and-out horror film: Night Watch, based on the extremely successful stage play by Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number). Infidelity looms large in the screenplay of Night Watch, and Taylor has several opportunities to wax rhapsodic on the subject. It's tempting now to look back at Taylor's personal history, and wonder if her recent heartbreak gave some extra intensity to her performance in the over-the-top climax of the movie. But it's more productive to look at that history — or at least the lurid public perception of that history I've described above — and understand how it helped make Night Watch one of Taylor's least-seen and least-remembered films.

At first, Taylor's impact on Night Watch had been purely practical. Her very presence meant huge changes had to be made to the production; and before it had even left the planning stage, Night Watch turned into a much different movie than it might have been without her.

The first problem was this: because Taylor and Richard Burton were so incredibly wealthy, they refused to work in the United States. The U.S. tax burden on people of their income level was too high (yes: it all sounds like a dream now, but in those days the wealthy in the U.S. had to pay a tremendous amount of taxes). Thus, in order for Taylor to star in the film, the shooting had to be moved from New York (the setting of the original stage play) to London — and damn the expense1.
1. I don't know for certain, but I can imagine the expense of moving the whole enterprise, combined with Liz's healthy-if-no-longer-staggering paycheck, was the main reason the story of Night Watch was simplified in the movie adaptation: a number of characters were simply written out of the screenplay. This might have made economical and logistical sense; but it probably wasn't the sanest thing to do to a murder mystery. Part of the interest of a thriller like Night Watch is trying to figure out the twist at the end, and reducing the number of suspects and subplots only makes the solution easier to guess.

The next problem? Night Watch's producers, having signed Elizabeth Taylor to take on the role originated by Joan Hackett, insisted that the male lead (originally performed by Len Cariou) should be played by Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate). Harvey and Taylor had co-starred in BUtterfield 8, the movie that had earned Taylor her first Academy Award, so it seems likely the producers were hoping to cash in on their past success. In any case, when Night Watch's director, Brian G. Hutton, found out that both Taylor and Harvey had been signed for the leads, he lost all hope for his film. He'd recently worked with Taylor on the disastrous Zee & Co.: he realized that with two such major egos in front of the camera, there was nothing a "director" could do to influence the course of the picture. Taylor and Harvey would impose their personalities on the production, and that would be that2.
2. Unsurprisingly, Hutton gave up the motion picture business a few years later and became a plumber.

But Harvey brought additional problems. He'd recently been diagnosed with cancer. In fact, he would be dead three months after Night Watch was released. In mid-shoot, the production ground to a halt when Harvey became critically ill and needed major surgery. As if that wasn't enough of a disturbance, by the time Harvey was well enough to continue Taylor had gained a good deal of weight — making continuity with her earlier footage just about impossible. Taylor wore flowing clothing to hide the extra pounds, but the difference is still noticeable in the finished film.

So: there we have it... an uprooted production, featuring a wealthy and temperamental star on the edge of an emotional crisis, who is playing a wealthy and temperamental woman on the edge of an emotional crisis... Laurence Harvey on his death-bed (onto which the ever-demonstrative Taylor would sometimes throw herself and sob that she wanted to die with him)... a director who'd frankly given up... With all the drama behind the scenes of Night Watch, you might expect the resulting movie to have ended up a complete fiasco.

The funny thing? It didn't.

The even funnier thing? A surprising number of people assume it turned out to be a complete fiasco, even though relatively few people have ever seen it. I suspect it's because so few people have ever seen it that its reputation is so dismal. But at the time Night Watch was made and released, the public drama of Taylor's life — see above — had overwhelmed this simple, relatively low-profile horror film, and in a surprisingly short time the movie had disappeared.

Taylor plays Ellen Wheeler, a wealthy woman married to an equally-wealthy man, investment banker John Wheeler. The couple has recently moved into a spacious house in London. Their next door neighbor, Appleby, is a man of more modest means; if he tends the Wheeler's garden with as much care as his own, it's less out of neighborly concern than because the Wheeler's house used to belong to his family in better days. Across from the Wheelers sits an abandoned house: its owners have apparently gone to South Africa, and it's unclear if they're ever coming back.

Ellen's very much a woman of leisure... which means that aside from putting together jigsaw puzzles, she doesn't have very much to do. She certainly has no need to work, and her housekeeping is taken care of by her pseudo-comic-relief Spanish maid. Her best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) has her own remedy for ennui — she's carrying on with a married man — but that sort of thing appalls Ellen. Either out of respect for Ellen's old-fashioned sense of propriety, or perhaps merely out of absent-mindedness, Sarah has yet to introduce Ellen to her new boyfriend, though she's always talking about him and is even considering running away with him.

As it happens, Ellen has a very good reason for being put off by Sarah's casual affair, and Sarah ought to know it. Years ago, Ellen's first husband had hidden a ridiculously young mistress (played in a silent cameo by Linda Hayden). One day, when he was supposed to have been attending an international business meeting, he'd actually gone off for a holiday with his Bit of Fluff. Drunk and unable to keep their hands off each other, the pair had lost control of their car and been killed in the resulting crash. Ellen, expecting her husband to call her from his work, had instead been summoned to some ghastly morgue in the middle of nowhere to identify his body. It was the first indication she'd had that he was even having an affair — "There was more lipstick on his clothes than blood," she says at one point — and the shock was enough to send her into a nervous breakdown. Even now, any small reminder is enough to bring her nightmarish flashbacks to that terrible night.

But Sarah may have a different reason for flaunting her indiscretions in front of Ellen. In fact, Ellen has begun to suspect it's he same reason Sarah hasn't brought her Prince Charming for a visit. Perhaps the mystery man is her own husband John.

(When you describe a mystery story, especially one with a nasty twist ending, it's difficult to avoid spoilers. Nevertheless, I don't think I'm revealing anything inappropriate by mentioning Ellen's suspicions. Oh, the screenplay thinks its playing its cards close to the vest, but it is sadly mistaken: perhaps it's because an extra 40 years of mystery movies have made it easier to guess what's coming, or perhaps it's because Taylor's nuanced delivery of the first few lines in the picture are so fraught with inner meanings... but it's immediately apparent that something's up with the Wheeler's marriage. Ellen doesn't actually mention her suspicions until the movie is two-thirds over, and it's evidently supposed to come as a shock to the audience. But as if the twist weren't easy enough to guess, the film also shoehorns in a scene of Sarah meeting her "mysterious" paramour that pretty well gives the game away.)

Ellen finds herself so troubled that she's unable to sleep. One night, during a heavy thunderstorm, she finds herself staring out into the rain, watching the empty house across the way. There is a flash of lightning — the wind blows open the shutter on the window opposite Ellen — and what she sees in the momentary glare sends her screaming for her husband. There's a dead man sprawled in a chair by the window. His throat's been cut.

(At least, that's what Ellen says she saw. We in the audience get a brief glimpse of something, but whether or not it's what Ellen describes is impossible to say. Owing to the poor quality of the VHS print, slowing down the DivX file on your computer won't help any... the whole point of the shot is not to let the audience see exactly what Ellen sees, and in this the film succeeds very well.)

John, like us, can't see a damned thing out the window. Still, he calls the police; while the stolid Inspector Walker takes the details of her story, policemen search the dripping ruin which is the house next door.

And they find nothing.

Ah, well, says Inspector Walker, anyone can make a mistake. Ellen is much less sanguine. She insists she saw what she saw, and is outraged that the police don't believe her. John quietly asks Walker not to dismiss her story out of hand, and Walker assures him he hasn't: they'll keep a surreptitious watch on the house over the next few days.

The next morning, Ellen notices something unusual: Mr. Appleby has planted a row of trees in the middle of the night. How much of a coincidence could it be that Appleby's done all that digging just after the body in the neighboring house has disappeared? Ellen immediately reports this to the police, who question Appleby but see little reason to push the matter further.

Ellen, though, is adamant. She continues to berate Inspector Walker for his refusal to take her seriously, though unfortunately the more she insists the less Walker is inclined to listen to her. John is troubled not only by her obsession with this disappearing corpse, but also by the resemblance of the alleged dead man to Ellen's late husband. Certainly we know her flashbacks have been frequent and vivid: could Ellen have been hallucinating? John gingerly suggests that Ellen go see their friend Tony, a noted psychiatrist... not, he insists, because of the whole dead-body issue, but because of her insomnia and general nervousness. Ellen manages to twist John's apparent concern for her well-being completely around, accusing John of pushing her to the sidelines of his life, and insisting she go for a rest-cure — alone — to get her conveniently out of the way.

Things take on a slightly different cast when Ellen just happens to open a drawer... and finds her dead husband's personal effects — his cufflinks and his lighter, the items that were returned to her that night in the morgue. Did Ellen simply forget about them, as John thinks? Or did someone put them there deliberately, to frighten her?

That night, Ellen sees a light appear in the empty house. This time nobody can argue that Ellen's seeing things: even Sarah sees the eerie glow coming from behind the shutters. Walker's watching constables spring into action, and discover... Appleby, who claims his curiosity's got the better of him. Walker and his men have little choice but to uproot Appleby's newly-planted laburnum trees, to see if anyone's buried underneath. Naturally, the only dead things they find in the garden are the trees, which they've just killed themselves. Now neither the police nor her next-door neighbor want anything further to do with Ellen or her vanishing corpses.

Which is the cue for Ellen to see another body in the window of the empty house. This time, it's a woman.

Is Ellen losing her mind? Are the ghosts of her past haunting her subconscious, making her see things that aren't really there — like her dead husband and his mistress? Or is it possible that either her husband or her best friend (or both) are "Gaslighting" her... using her bad memories to drive her insane? Either possibility seems equally likely, until certain uneasy suggestions start piling up. What, for example, did Sarah put in Ellen's cocoa? Who was the man Sarah went to see in that hotel, and why did she tell a foolish lie about her plans to meet her lover? Who really owns the house across the way? And even if Ellen does manage to put the pieces together and figure out who's trying to frighten her to death... will the police ever believe her?

Night Watch had a high-profile release at New York's Radio City Music Hall on August 9, 1973. The film won praise from the critics: the New York Times congratulated Taylor on finally making a decent film; the Cleveland Press didn't think so much of the movie, but praised Taylor's performance; Variety was less thrilled by Taylor, but thought the film was an improvement over the stage play. Time magazine, on the other hand, thought the overwrought melodrama was too tough a slog to be worth while.

And here's where Night Watch got torpedoed by the Burton-Taylor breakup I outlined (however unreliably) at the beginning of this review. Audiences tended to agree with Time magazine: it had only been a week since Taylor had announced she had begun divorce proceedings, and the general public had had enough tabloid melodrama from the Burton-Taylor marriage. They certainly weren't in the mood to hear Liz rant about infidelity. Taylor, after all, had been responsible — had been notorious, in fact — for breaking up two marriages: that of her friends Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (formerly known as "America's Sweethearts" until Taylor broke them up); and, of course, that of Richard and Sibyl Burton (to say nothing of Taylor's own marriage to Fisher). Furthermore, after critical and financial disappointments like Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Comedians (both 1967), and utter catastrophes like Boom! (1968), Zee & Co. and Hammersmith is Out (both 1972), the idea of the "Liz Taylor movie" was actually starting to repel audiences.

As the box office receipts dwindled, Night Watch started its descent into total obscurity. Over the intervening years, writers on Taylor and Burton have had little to say about it: Burton's biographer Martin Bragg sums up the film as "another of her sadly deteriorating movies" — had he even seen it? — while Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, in their book Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century, acknowledge the film's existence but say nothing about its content or quality. Taylor's biographies rarely even mention it (one recent book tries to disparage her appearance in the film by comparing it to Bette Davis's appearance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?... which tells us much more about the quality of the biographer than the quality of Night Watch). The movie was released with little fanfare in a panned-and-scanned version on VHS in the mid-1980's; it has never been released on DVD, and the only way for most people to see it now is through a single, scratchy bootleg print of the videotape that's circulating on the Internet.

But does Night Watch deserve its obscurity? Is it just the tawdry little B-picture the biographers claim it is — an embarrassment, best left unmentioned?

Well, personally, I have to agree with the New York Times: by comparison to some of the pretentious, overblown A-pictures she'd made over the previous few years, Night Watch is a huge relief. I know there are contrarians who will insist that Boom!, Zee & Co. or (Cthulhu help us) Hammersmith Is Out are works of misunderstood genius, but for my part I'd much rather see Taylor in this solid, workmanlike thriller than in any of the other films she made around the same time3
3. Except, of course, for Under Milk Wood.
. Sure, most of those movies thought they were making Big, Important Statements... but, if I may channel the ghost of Gertrude Stein for a moment, just because something means something doesn't mean that the something it means is meaningful. For all the inflated self-importance of a movie like Boom!, it's really just about a bunch of tiresome, wordy rich people drinking themselves to death. How much more exciting it is when those same tiresome rich people are killing each other — with knives across the throat, no less! And how much of a relief it is when they cast aside any attempts at painfully bad allegory and tell each other what they really mean!

After all, if here's one thing you can say about Elizabeth Taylor, for better or for worse, she was absolutely — even monstrously — genuine. It was her utter commitment to being Elizabeth Taylor, regardless of the consequences, that sustained her as a human being... even as it limited her as an actress4
4. As she grew more comfortable with her celebrity, her movie roles tended to succeed only as far as they resembled her. And if the roles weren't intended to resemble her, they did by the time she was through with them. For example, where once — in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — she had worn the guise of a Southern seductress like a second skin, in Hammersmith is Out the role seemed like an ill-fitting, hand-me-down Halloween costume, which had fallen off by the end; while in Divorce His, Divorce Hers the director protested there was no way her character could afford to wear Taylor's own jewelry... yet wear it she did.
. So here was Taylor playing a wickedly exaggerated version of a simple character she was comfortably (or uncomfortably) familiar with. The result is one of her least cringeworthy films of the 1970s. Here she plays a wealthy woman whose problems make her more human, instead of less approachable; here she is funny without being ridiculous; she remains sympathetic even during her worst behavior; and she's more believable — in a genre that requires the unbelievable— than she'd been in Boom!, Hammersmith or Zee. Considering that she would go on to film the train wreck quasi-giallo Identikit/The Driver's Seat and the turgid fantasy The Blue Bird in the three years that followed the release of Night Watch, it's hard to imagine why Night Watch should still be the least-known and least-respected of her movies.

Perhaps its because, outside of Taylor's decent performance, the movie really only comes to life in two places. The first is during the brief flashback scenes. These flashbacks are filmed in a different style from the rest of the film, to suggest the shock and horror that Ellen Wheeler experienced (and continues to experience) as her whole world came crumbling down. The nightmare quality of these flashbacks returns in the movie's other strong point, the harrowing climax, which is shot in near-darkness broken occasionally by flashes of lightning. Naturally, Taylor's performance is the standout even here, but it's still noticeable when the pedestrian visual style of the movie suddenly reverts to the chilling atmosphere of the flashbacks.

But what moments these are! At the climax, as Ellen Wheeler hides in the shadows of the empty house, she hallucinates being tormented by the walking corpse of Linda Hayden — pale, smirking, crusted with blood. As confrontations with madness and death go, this is much more effective than Sissy Goforth coughing blood into her handkerchief in Boom!, while Richard Burton watches in a god-damned samurai suit. It's certainly better than the presence of Death in Identikit — "... not really a presence... but a lack of absence," as Taylor's character puts it, idiotically — in which Giuseppe Patroni Griffi takes an hour and three quarters to arrive at a conclusion Stephen Crane expressed better in three lines.

Sure, everybody from Taylor to Laurence Harvey to Brian G. Hutton had done better work at some point in their careers. Not at this point in their careers, but in general. Nevertheless, Night Watch, in spite of its maligned genre, is nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps somebody some day will figure this out, and give us a restored widescreen DVD; but until then, I guess all I can say is this: the movie file is called "NEW 1.divx". Happy hunting, and good luck.

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