How fantastic did 1979's DEATH WATCH seem to its original audiences? The premise of a popular network program in which a terminally ill patient's final days are documented by an amiable young man who befriends, then records them via his eyes wired to a camera implanted in his brain? A "reality" show. Would people really watch? Would network executives practice deception (quite evil, at that) on their subjects just to get "the shot", the expected emotional outbursts that make "great TV"? The foundation of this story is science fiction. Its themes? Take a look at what's been popular on television the last decade plus.
Roddie (Harvey Keitel) is the "cameraman", owned by Glasgow's NTV for which Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) produces "Death Watch." The show is a Scottish sensation, nightly exploiting some poor individual reconciling a degenerative disease. Odd, because in this society of the near future, cancer, heart disease, and most of the other usual malignancies have been eradicated by medical science. Nonetheless, Katharine (Romy Schneider) is told by her doctor she has a month to live, and behind what appears to her to be a mirror, Ferriman and Roddie are monitoring, planning for their next featured "guest star".
Katharine is a novelist, though she doesn't actually construct her books, rather merely feeding ideas into a computer with artifical intelligence that spits out a completed tome. Yes, DEATH WATCH truly is a prophetic movie. NTV offers her a sum to allow her last days to be filmed, but she argues for her privacy. "Nothing is private," states Ferriman, uttering something as relevant for a viewer in 2012 as it ever could be.
It finally seems that Katharine relents, taking an upfront payment from the network but then executing her own exit strategy. Roddie, who she does not know, or of his unique faculties, catches up with and becomes her friend, her compadre on the lam. Along the way, the dying woman will begin to show signs that her disease, whatever it is, is progressing faster than expected. The ratings go through the roof.
I will not reveal further details of Katharine's plight, or what happens in the closing passages of DEATH WATCH, as their discovery made me quietly gasp and smile grimly as to the cleverness of the screenplay (by director Bertrand Tavernier, David Rayfiel, and others). There is an ice cold moral to this tale that should make anyone blanch as they think on contemporary television fare.
But there is also a beating heart amongst the biting commentary. Schneider's performance is tremendous, a powerhouse of the dynamic emotions of which I would imagine for someone coming to terms with their final days. Knowing that this was her screen bow and that she died a few years later only enriches this performance.
Keitel does quite well as a man who has been reduced to a mere instrument, until an moment of clarity will precipitate a correction of wrongs that is near Oedipal in its tragedy. Stanton is interesting, as always, as a man who seems to have a conscience, but has sold out beyond redemption. His Vincent possesses a calculated, cold hearted protocol, but he plays it with an almost apologetic tone, adding another disturbing layer to this parable.
While DEATH WATCH may not be as penetrating as NETWORK (and perhaps it is an inappropriate comparison for many reasons), it stands as another fine example of one of the most useful methods for the science fiction genre: using the advanced technology of the future to comment on the present. I hope we never catch up to it.