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GFF 2012 - Death Watch

Bertrand Tavernier’s remarkable Glasgow-shot film foresaw the coming of voyeuristic TV

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GFF 2012 - Death Watch

It’s arguably the best film ever shot in Scotland, but chances are you’ve never seen it. Directed in 1979 by French auteur Bertrand Tavernier (A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight) and set in the near future, Death Watch is a Glasgow-set sci-fi drama about Roddy (Harvey Keitel), who has a miniature camera planted inside his head. His job is to film the last days of terminally ill Katherine (Romy Schneider) for a live reality television programme. When Roddy falls in love with Katherine, they defy the authorities and go on the run. As the synopsis suggests, Death Watch was a long way ahead of its time, yet has been almost completely unavailable since its initial release. Why?

‘I think everyone who worked on Death Watch knew they were making something important and lasting,’ says Iain Smith, who was the film’s unit production manager. ‘Tavernier is a great director, so we knew this film was a class act, something which would endure. But I think it was produced by some rather odd people; I remember one of the producers turning up on the shoot in Blackhill with a pink Rolls Royce. When the production ended, they didn’t settle all the bills, which Bertrand was horrified about, and so I think rights issues were never properly settled. I didn’t see the film again for 30 years, until I was asked to introduce a screening of an old print at the GFT, and I was amazed at how prescient the story still is.’

Only issued on DVD once (in France) and never shown on television, Death Watch sank into obscurity, but after being digitally restored from an original 35mm print, it’ll be screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, followed by a UK cinema and home entertainment release by Park Circus, which will give Tavernier’s film a fresh chance to find a new audience.

As well as a powerful drama set in the future, it’s a fascinating souvenir of Glasgow’s past. ‘At that time, many of Glasgow’s buildings were being hauled down, the motorway was being built through the city, the atmosphere was one of desperate chance,’ says Smith. ‘And among the demolished tenements, gap sites and open wastelands, there were many older buildings, which couldn’t be taken down for architectural reasons. Tavernier very intelligently thought the best way to find the future was by looking at the past, and this passing of Glasgow as an industrial power caught his imagination. I remember we attended a reception at Glasgow city chambers and the Lord Provost asked Bertrand why he had not wanted to make the film in Edinburgh. I thought, here we go, and feared the worst. But Tavernier replied, “Edinburgh is merely beautiful, but Glasgow is dramatic.” It was exactly the right thing to say.’

Since Death Watch, Smith progressed through Chariots of Fire and Local Hero to become one of the world’s top producers, pulling off big-budget blockbusters including The Fifth Element and Children of Men. Currently setting up the Mad Max reboot, Smith looks back at the filming of Death Watch with affection.

‘It made me believe that making big films was a battle I could not only fight, but win. Obviously it was great to work with Bertrand Tavernier, who was much more experienced than many of the crew were. It was fascinating to see how he worked with Romy Schneider, who was very sensitive and very shy, and it was amazing how he would whisper encouragement to her and tease the performance out of her that’s very much the heart of the film. And Keitel was pretty eccentric. He was a big fan of the Lee Strasberg method of acting. To prepare for scenes in which his character was blind, Harvey took a blind man down to the beach at Largs and filmed him walking across rocks.

‘Fortunately, we didn’t have to do risk assessments or health and safety, we just had to hope for the best in those days.’

Death Watch screens at GFT, Sun 26 Feb, 3pm and will be on selected release from Park Circus in Spring 2012.

Bertrand Tavernier-1980-La Mort En Direct

Death Watch (La mort en direct)

  • 4 stars
  • 1980
  • 15
  • Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier
  • Written by: Bertrand Tavernier, David Rayfiel
  • Cast: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow

Katherine (Schneider) is a novelist living in Glasgow who's been diagnosed with a terminal disease; Roddy (Keitel) befriends her, but unknown to her he works for a TV company with its own agenda. The basic idea is amazingly prescient but the plot is rather preposterous; Schneider's moving performance anchors it in…

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