Secret Ceremony (1968)
Hey, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these! It’s been 31 Days of Oscar and then last week TCM Underground switched days but didn’t announce it until the day after–so I missed out on that one. So, this week, after a long hiatus, is a Liz Taylor double feature. The first one, a little film directed by Joseph Losey and with a pretty great supporting cast, with Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum all lending a hand.
How could a movie this sordid, this batshit crazy be so goddamned boring? The basic story is this: Liz Taylor, a prostitute, looks like Mia Farrow’s dead mother. Mia Farrow is completely unhinged in that way only mentally ill people are in movies, where whatever crazy thing they want to do is just done, because their symptoms are whatever the plot is required of them at any given time. So, Mia Farrow invites Liz Taylor to stay with her in her mansion, thinking that’s her mother. Liz Taylor and Mia Farrow are both damaged people, Taylor having lost a daughter, Farrow having lost a mother, and they forge a dysfunctional relationship with each other. Pretty basic set-up for a plot, right? Case of mistaken identity? It takes forever to get to this point, and leading up to all of this, we have to watch Liz Taylor eat breakfast in extreme close-up. She belches, she leans back and goes, “Ohhhh yeah! That was a great breakfast!” We see every detail of this meal before we can continue with the plot.
I feel it necessary to explain at this point that Secret Ceremony is not a comedy. It’s very “serious stuff”, even when Mia Farrow pulls a Clint Eastwood and starts yelling at a chair. It’s a movie dripping with sleaze, but believes itself to be high art. There’s a nudity-free scene where Liz Taylor and Mia Farrow take a bath together. There’s a scene where Mia Farrow, who believes Liz Taylor is her mother mind you, tries to seduce her. Robert Mitchum, who plays Mia Farrow’s ex-stepfather, has sex with Mia Farrow sometime after Mia Farrow fakes a scene to make it look like she’d been raped by him. This is such over-the-top melodrama that we should be howling with laughter, not checking the clock every five minutes.
No one in the film is even remotely likable. I understand that’s the point of this movie, to spend time with some disgusting characters, to feel uncomfortable for the film’s run time, but the problem is that they’re not interesting, either. Liz Taylor is a prostitute, but never does that ever really factor in to the film’s plot. She just is, and that’s the way it is. It’s of such little consequence that apparently in the TV version of this movie, she’s a wig model. To have a movie with two wildly divergent occupations rendered as essentially interchangeable means you’ve got some dull characterizations.
The acting itself is, across the board, decent. There’s no way Liz Taylor, Mia Farrow or Robert Mitchum are going to be bad in a movie, they’re just not. The problem is that the script doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. Mitchum, though, gets the best lines. Like, “You look more like a cow than my late wife, no offense, I’m very fond of cows.” There are moments of some inspired, demented genius–it’s just that the film is satisfied with being sleazy, and that’s about it. It thinks its existence is naughty enough to justify itself as a creation, but it’s unfortunately just so damned dull, with an overall tone that doesn’t know if it wants to be V.C. Andrews or Masterpiece Theater.
Night Watch (1973)
Night Watch, on the other hand–another film about mental illness, starring Liz Taylor–is all the trashy bit of fun it sets out to be. Playing out like a cross between Gaslight and Rear Window, Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) believes that she has witnessed a murder in the towering, abandoned house next door. There was a man, she says, seated by the window, with his throat slashed. The police investigate and find nothing. At her insistence, they dig up the yard of her neighbor who was up all night long planting in his garden, with one plot looking suspiciously large enough to hide a body in.
When no evidence of any murder turns up anywhere, her husband John (Laurence Harvey) and her good friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) begin to grow concerned that she’s suffering from a paranoid delusion. Especially when she witnesses another murder, from the same window, this time a woman, and again no evidence of any such incident appearing.
John and Sarah, it seems, are having an affair behind Ellen’s back. Are they trying to drive her mad? Items belonging to her dead ex-husband are appearing in drawers that weren’t there before. And why does Sarah keep insisting that Ellen drink and take pills to calm her nerves?
If you look at Night Watch and its denouement and think about it for anything longer than thirty seconds, the whole thing crumbles under scrutiny. But that’s half of the fun of this movie. It’s a silly plot treated with a sort of tongue-in-cheek sincerity, borrowing some of its design and set pieces from giallo films, all for the sake of pure entertainment, no matter how inconceivable the plot may become.
Night Watch was directed by Brian G. Hutton, who helmed The Wild Seed and Where Eagles Dare, and appears to be a director that can take material and rise above it by injecting it with a certain amount of style and energy. When he’s handed good material (Where Eagles Dare) he can make something pretty damn good. Night Watch, in particular, could have been a boring slog if handled too seriously or with too much ironic detachment in his handling of the knowingly-tawdry material.
Lucille Fletcher, who wrote the original play that the film is based on, is something of a legend. She wrote the novel, Sorry, Wrong Number and the radio play The Hitch-Hiker, which was adapted into one of the all-time best Twilight Zone episodes and gets an uncredited source for inspiring the hitchhiker segment of Creepshow 2.
Next Week: Next week they’re showing Willard and Ben, which I’ve already reviewed!