Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 21, 2014
Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.
I’m particularly fond of the two films Hutton crafted with Elizabeth Taylor in the 1970s during an intriguing period in her career that is often dismissed by critics as well as fickle fans. The first film Hutton and Taylor made together was a twisted love triangle with the cheeky American title X, Y & Z (1972). This blacker than black comedy pitted Taylor against Michael Caine in a sort of sexy update of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF set in swinging London. The film didn’t fare all that well with critics but audiences seemed to appreciate it and Taylor enjoyed working with the affable director who kept his two stars laughing during the shoot. Their second film was the Hitchcockian thriller NIGHT WATCH (1973) that reunited Taylor with Laurence Harvey, her longtime friend and costar from the Oscar winning BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960). Of the two films Hutton made with Taylor, NIGHT WATCH is my personal favorite for a number of reasons. First and foremost it’s a great little suspense filled feature with some surprising twists and turns that provided Elizabeth Taylor with one of her meatiest late career roles. Besides reuniting her with Harvey, the cast also includes horror film and television favorites Billie Whitelaw (TWISTED NERVE; 1968, FRENZY; 1972, THE OMEN; 1976, Etc.) and Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA; 1970, THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW; 1971, MADHOUSE; 1974, Etc.) as well as Robert Lang (THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD; 1971, THE MEDUSA TOUCH; 1978, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED; 1980, Etc.). I first saw the film on television when I was a kid and it flat out terrified me so as a horror buff I also have a sentimental attachment to NIGHT WATCH but my appreciation of Brian G. Hutton’s film has only increased with each subsequently viewing. For decades I only had a cheap VHS copy of the film that seemed to be rapidly deteriorating but a few years ago it was made available on DVD from the Warner Archives.
In NIGHT WATCH Elizabeth Taylor plays a wealthy and highly strung woman named Ellen Wheeler in her second marriage to husband John (Laurence Harvey). Things take an odd turn one dark and stormy night when Taylor peers through a window and thinks she has seen a murder take place in an old and abandoned house next door. Since she’s prone to hysteria, Ellen‘s husband doesn’t believe her story but he reluctantly calls the police anyway. When the police finally arrive and search the old house they find no evidence that a murder has taken place there although Ellen remains convinced that she’s seen a horrendous crime occur and has begun to assume that her nosey neighbor (Robert Lang) might be involved. Taylor’s character is also plagued by terrible nightmares involving her first husband (Kevin Colson) who was killed in a car crash while he was fooling around in his sports car with a partially-clothed pretty young woman (Linda Hayden). To further complicate matters, Ellen begins to suspect that her best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) and her husband might be having an affair. Ellen’s trauma induced nightmares and paranoia about her husband’s infidelity cause her a lot of anxiety and as the film progresses she tries to numb her emotional pain and strange visions with alcohol and pills. Are horrible crimes taking place in the abandoned house next door or are they just a figment of Ellen’s disturbed mind? Is Ellen’s husband trying to kill her or drive her mad in order to take control of the family fortune? The surprising answers to these questions are unveiled in the film’s shocking climax!
On the surface, the plot of NIGHT WATCH appears to be similar to many “women-in-peril” movies that are probably best exemplified by GASLIGHT (1938) as well as its 1944 remake but just when you assume you know the direction Hutton’s film is taking, NIGHT WATCH explodes in a bloody finale that’s sure to leave a few viewers shocked. I won’t reveal the ending here because I want readers to seek out the film for themselves but I promise that it’s well worth 90 minutes of your time if you appreciate a good Grand-Guignol-style thriller as much as I do.
The film was based on a play written by Lucille Fletcher who made a name for herself writing suspenseful radio dramas in the early forties including THE HITCH-HIKER (1941), which was originally performed by Orson Welles and The Campbell Playhouse and eventually turned into a memorable episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Fletcher was also responsible for SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1943), which was adapted for the screen in 1948. The film version was directed by Anatole Litvak and starred Barbara Stanwyck, who earned an Oscar nomination playing a bed-bound woman who thinks she overhears a murder plot thanks to a crossed telephone connection. It’s worth noting that Fletcher’s first husband was film composer Bernard Herrmann who she married in 1938. The two were only married for 10 years and during that time Hermann wrote scores for many films including CITIZEN KANE (1941), THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947) and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948) before making an even bigger name for himself working with Alfred Hitchcock. Although Lucille Fletcher and Bernard Herrmann divorced in 1948, NIGHT WATCH references many of Hitchcock’s best films including SUSPICION (1941), SPELLBOUND (1945), REAR WINDOW (1954), DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and PSYCHO (1960). These similarities are further exemplified by Brian G. Hutton’s creative direction but that’s not a fault. In fact, one of the reasons NIGHT WATCH works so well is because it doesn’t attempt to mask its influences. Hutton latched on to the Hitchcockian aspects in Fletcher’s original story and with the use of moody lighting, menacing shadows and a tense score by composer John Cameron (THE RULING CLASS; 1972, THE STRANGE VENGENCE OF ROSALIE; 1972, PSYCHOMANIA; 1973, Etc.) he was able to carefully compose scenes reminiscent of the Master of Suspense.
Like many “old dark house” mysteries, almost all of the action in NIGHT WATCH takes place in one location but the film never feels restricted or claustrophobic. In fact, I’d recommend it to any aspiring horror director with a limited budget who wanted a lesson in how to create suspense in a constrained setting. Hutton, along with Oscar winning cinematographer Billy Williams, amped up the horror by shooting numerous close-ups of gloved hands and large kitchen knives, which were typically seen in giallo films of the same period and the nightmare sequences are particularly eerie and effective. Hutton has fun playing with visual metaphors and throughout the film Taylor’s character is constantly seen toying with a puzzle and while she tries to fit the pieces together the audience is left in the dark tripping over multiple red-herrings.
According to Cinema Retro, Hutton wasn’t particularly happy with the film or the way it was received by critics and afterward he retired from filmmaking for 7 years. In an interview he remembered wondering, “Well, what am I wasting my life doing this for?’ I mean, a gorilla could have made those movies: Elizabeth Taylor does what she’s got to do and Laurence Harvey does what he’s got to do. It was good fun, but all I had to do was yell ‘Action’ and ‘Cut-Print’ because everybody was doing what they had to do anyway.” Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey seemed to have had a lot more fun during filming and enjoyed working with one another again. At the time Harvey told an interviewer from Photoplay that, “I adore her (Taylor). She’s one of the few people I’ve ever worked with who really gives me something in return. One if the very few. With a lot of actresses I just have to imagine them being what I can read into the parts they play. . . With Elizabeth it’s different. When she speaks and behaves like Ellen in NIGHT WATCH I know it’s Ellen. There’s no question about it being anyone else. It’s because of the absolute concentration on what she’s doing.”
When shooting ended Taylor and Harvey began making plans to appear in another thriller together but unfortunately that never happened. Harvey was diagnosed with cancer during the making of NIGHT WATCH and he was undoubtedly in considerable pain during filming. His performance is rather low-key and seems to suggest that he was somewhat distracted and not feeling his best but he’s still very convincing as Taylor’s neglectful business-minded husband. Sadly, Harvey died just three short months after the film was released.
Brian G. Hutton along with Taylor and Harvey might be gone but we can still enjoy the fruits of their labor at a bargain price. NIGHT WATCH is currently on sale at the Warner Archive Shop where you can snag yourself a copy for just $13.89. So what are you waiting for? Halloween is just around the corner!
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