Night Watch, The (1973): Psychological Thriller (a la Gaslight), Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey (in One of Final Roles)

From Our Vaults:

Based on a play by Lucille Fletcher, Night Watch is a suspense thriller, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey in their second teaming after their 1960 collaboration on BUtterfield 8, for which Taylor won her first Best Actress Oscar.

Night Watch
Night Watch FilmPoster.jpeg

Theatrical release poster


Some of the story elements recall the plot of the play and George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, for which Ingrid Bergman earned the first of her three Oscars.

The tale centers on Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), who one night during a raging thunderstorm, hysterically tells her husband John (Harvey) that she has seen a murder being committed in the old, deserted house next door. John calls the police, but a search of the old house turns up nothing.

The next morning, Ellen notices a freshly planted bed of Laburnum in the garden that was not there before. She calls investigating detective, Inspector Walker (Bill Dean), to suggest that the body of the murder victim may be buried there.

Inspector Walker then questions the neighbor, Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang), who confirms that he planted the trees the night before, but he refuses to let the police dig up the trees.

It is revealed that Ellen is recovering from mental breakdown that occurred after her unfaithful first husband, Carl, was killed in a car accident with his paramour. Ellen was traumatized by having to identify the bodies in the local morgue (seen in a flashback).

Ellen continues to hold that she saw a murder in the deserted house, but there is no real proof, and John remains skeptical. Ellen’s visiting friend Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw), who is equally skeptical, trying to calm and humoring her.

When Ellen and Sarah see a man in the old house, they call the police, who find Mr. Appleby wandering and arrest him for trespassing. A second search of the house and excavation of the garden reveal nothing, and Inspector Walker closes the case.

John then brings psychiatrist friend Tony (Tony Britton). After learning about Ellen’s first husband and her nervous breakdown, Tony suggests going to a clinic in another country, and Ellen agrees to do so.

That evening, Ellen claims to John and Sarah that she saw another body in the old house, that of a woman.  As a result, Ellen is sedated by John and Sarah, who think that Ellen may be losing her mind.

As Ellen prepares to leave for the airport, John asks her to sign documents, including one that grants him power of attorney over their financial holdings; she complies. But she notices that John had recently acquired a company that owns the deserted house. She angrily confronts him with that knowledge and the key to the house, accusing him and Sarah of having an affair and plotting to drive her mad and have her committed.

John still denies cheating on her or having anything to do with the murders she claimed to have seen. Ellen runs to the old house, with John and Sarah chasing her. Ellen lures them to the second-floor room, where she violently attacks and stabs them to death with a butcher knife. She then positions them in the same manner that she had claimed to have seen the two bodies.

The film’s denouement reveals that Ellen had only pretended to be insane by claiming to have seen murders, and that it was her scheme to murder John and Sarah for their affair.

Mr. Appleby, who had grown up in John and Ellen’s house before they purchased it, makes a surprise appearance, congratulating Ellen on pulling off her complex scheme. After informing her that he won’t go to the police because Inspector Walker wouldn’t believe him, Ellen invites Mr. Appleby to look after her house and the garden until she returns.

Strange Ending:

Mr. Appleby happily agrees to do so as Ellen bids him goodbye and departs.

Night Watch was based on a 1972 play by Lucille Fletcher, who is better known for writing Sorry, Wrong Number, made in 1948 into a popular film noir, starring Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster.

Screen rights to the play were bought by producer Martin Pol prior to the Broadway run. He set up the film at Brut Productions, a new division of the Fabergé Company, run by George Barrie.

After relocating the story to England, the film was shot at Elstree Studios in London. Brut financed the entire film, with Taylor taking pay cut in exchange for larger percentage.

Director Brian Hutton had just made X Y and Zee, also with Elizabeth Taylor.

Barrie later financed what became Harvey’s last movie, Welcome to Arrow Beach; he died in 1973 of stomach cancer.

Avco Embassy distributed the film with alongside with A Touch of Class (which won Oscar nominations and awards).

Though it was a rather familiar and old-fashioned thriller, the astute direction and good cast elevated the material above the routine.

Elizabeth Taylor as Ellen Wheeler
Laurence Harvey as John Wheeler
Billie Whitelaw as Sarah Cooke
Robert Lang as Mr. Appleby
Tony Britton as Tony
Bill Dean as Inspector Walker
Michael Danvers-Walker as Sergeant Norris
Rosario Serrano as Dolores
Pauline Jameson as Secretary
Linda Hayden as Girl in car
Kevin Colson as Carl
Laon Maybanke as Florist
David Jackson as Wilson


Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Screenplay by Evan Jones, Tony Williamson, based on Night Watch 1972 play by Lucille Fletcher
Produced by Barnard Straus, Martin Poll, George W. George
Cinematography Billy Williams
Edited by John Jympson
Music by John Cameron

Production companies: Brut Productions, Nightwatch Films

Distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures

Release date: August 10, 1973

Running time: 99 minutes

Brian G. Hutton Filmography

Wild Seed (1965)

The Pad and How to Use It (1966)

Sol Madrid (1968)

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Zee and Co. (1972)

Night Watch (1973)

The First Deadly Sin (1980)

High Road to China (1983)