So I managed to get hold of a copy of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation – La mort en direct, or Death in Full View, or Death Watch – of DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. And I watched it last night.
The book was published in 1974 (I wrote about it here). The film was released six years later in 1980. It was directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starred Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow, and Thérèse Liotard (and a young Robbie Coltrane). Although the movie’s director is French, and the cast is international, it was filmed in Glasgow in English.
I think Death Watch is the first film by Tavernier I’ve seen. I was, of course, more interested in how it was adapted from the novel than in it as a film per se, but even so some parts seemed curiously inept. The editing is especially noticeable, featuring abrupt cuts which badly impact the flow of scenes. The cast also appear to be improvising… but after a night on the town and so suffering from bad hangovers. Some of the dialogue is not so much banal as downright phatic. In one scene, television producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) picks up Roddy (Harvey Keitel) in his limousine. After settling into the car, Roddy asks with a smirk, “Did your handkerchief die?” Vincent gives an embarrassed laugh, and fiddles with the handkerchief poking from the breast-pocket of his jacket. Dialogue in books, plays and films rarely approaches realism because so much real-life dialogue is wasted breath.
The film also shifts the story from the title character, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schenider), onto Roddy, the man who has had his eyes replaced by television cameras. The novel presents Roddy’s narrative in first-person, and Katherine’s in third-person, but Katherine is very much the subject of the story. She has to be for the ending to work. Focusing the film on Roddy makes it unbalanced. It is through Roddy’s eyes that we explore Katherine’s character, which means we should be looking out through them (as we do in the book). We should not see Harvey Keitel’s gurning mug plastered across the screen… Not that I’ve ever understood how Keitel manages to appear in so many well-respected films. He can’t act.
The film follows the plot of the book reasonably closely, although several scenes have been left out. Katherine is told of her fatal illness by a doctor – her reaction to this, and her husband’s response, are both treated quickly. Which makes her decision to run away, and so avoid appearing as contracted on the eponymous television programme, seem somewhat abrupt. She visits the Depot, a street market, and buys a disguise. She escapes her minder from the television studio (Robbie Coltrane), and spends the night in a church dormitory. This is where Roddy befriends her, and perhaps is one of the few scenes in the film in which Keitel does a good job. Together they go on the run, eventually making their way to Katherine’s ex-husband Gerald (Max von Sydow).
Few films are better than their source texts. Death Watch is not one of them. It is only when von Sydow appears on screen that the film feels as serious as its subject matter demands. Nor has Katherine’s character been built up enough to fully explain the choice she makes which ends the film.
Having said that, Glasgow makes suitably grim backdrop – although I felt the book deserved to be set in a town filled with Brutalist architecture. Its world felt grey and slab-faced, which Glasgow certainly isn’t. A couple of scenes were staged cheaply, and it shows in the sparseness of the set-dressing and extras. The acting is mostly good, but von Sydow is, as usual, excellent, and Keitel is, as usual, terrible. I’m glad I watched the film, but it’s not a patch on the book.