I can’t believe that it’s only in the past few weeks I’ve seen Death Watch for the first time. I’ve had various opportunities to catch the film previously, but I’ve somehow always managed to miss them – much to my frustration. But missing screenings isn’t really a decent excuse, as Glasgow’s own Park Circus released the film on DVD back in 2012.
I first heard about it in the late 1990s, when Glasgow’s film-making scene was gathering pace: when the Glasgow Film Office was established and when The House of Mirth brought the likes of Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd to town the newspapers naturally spoke of the city’s cinematic past and 1980’s Death Watch was often mentioned. In such articles it stood out in particular due to its main star being a big American name – and in the late 1990s Harvey Keitel’s stock was high with the likes of Pulp Fiction and From Dusk Till Dawn under his belt. Of course, a lot has happened since then and the papers now tend to make a beeline for a certain zombie movie when summarising Glasgow’s relationship with the big screen.
Keitel is television company employee Roddy, who has a camera implanted in his eye and is tasked with befriending and documenting – without her knowledge – the day to day life of terminally ill Katherine, played by Romy Schneider.
His output is for the television show Death Watch, an extreme of reality television. Despite the relatively unaltered setting of late 1970s Glasgow, the show is a nod to a slightly dystopian future. Other subtle touches that take the story beyond 1980 include the out of place looking videophone in an otherwise old fashioned doctor’s office, and the mention by Roddy’s ex wife of a “Saturday market card” – implying that citizens are allotted certain days on which they can buy their groceries.
Another thing notable about the unusual world of Death Watch is the semi-anonymity of the setting. As with a film previously featured here – Unleashed – there is a near absence of Scottish accents. American, English, French, German and Irish voices pop up with Paul Young’s police officer the only distinctly Scottish character to appear. The company behind the television show, NTV, seems to be a global affair, with American boss Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) referring to audience share in Germany. Yet NTV’s exterior is Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and its interior City Chambers – surprisingly old world locations to represent a global television network creating cutting edge programming.
Glasgow and Scotland are by no means drowned out in Death Watch however – in fact at one point we hear children singing “Coulter’s Candy”. Glasgow buses, a branch of Clydesdale Bank and road signs for places like Dumbarton are visible, and in a moment of contrast we see Ferriman’s American car drive past The Wee Mann’s pub – an establishment to have carried a number of names over the years, most recently The Clutha.
Other Glasgow locations to appear include the Necropolis (which, accompanied by a dramatic overture, provides a fitting opening to the film and its subject matter), Glasgow Cathedral, the Royal Infirmary, West George Street, Charing Cross, Bothwell Street, the University of Glasgow and even the Makro cash and carry. A particularly striking setting is Stobcross Quay as a kind of psychedelic riverside version of The Barras. But it’s not so much the weird and wonderful market that’s striking, but the Clyde backdrop of a big ship, multiple cranes and the imposing Meadowside Granary.
If Death Watch has passed you by too then I would recommend checking it out – I found the last third of the film a little slow in pace, but it is an interesting and original movie worthy of its cult status.