Witness (1985) *****

The Casablanca of the crime thriller, a stone cold classic in which impossible love takes precedence over unusual situation. In the Bogart-Bergman picture it is expatriates in war-torn North Africa, here a cop protecting an innocent boy hides out among the Amish. Like The Rock, this is so good the director makes the audience wait for a first sighting of the star while exploring the other main characters and the unique backdrop, in this case the customs and dress code of a religious cult that shuns the modern.

Adding to the paranoia rampant in American cinema in the 1970s/1980s is a further element – the hunted man or, in this case, boy. There’s no mystery in this thriller, 20 minutes in we know the culprit, involved in a criminal conspiracy so powerful it cannot be fought. And unlike the bulk of cop movies it’s not set in a city but in the country.

Just-widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and eight-year-old son Jacob (Lukas Haas) set out by train to Philadelphia where the boy witnesses a brutal murder. Questioned by  Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), we discover by accident the killer is cop Lt McFee (Danny Glover). Reaching out to trusted mentor Police Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) only to discover he is implicated, Book flees back to Amish country, where a gunshot wound prolongs his stay.  

Distrusted as an uncouth “English,” liable to violence the Amish abhor, Book, with a range of carpentry skills, soon finds himself at home. Drawn to Rachel, passions simmer, but in this collision of cultures she cannot leave and he cannot stay. Without the cop background this would be a beautifully rendered love story, but the daily danger of the hidden being located  heightens already tense emotions.

The examination of the Amish lifestyle is faultless. Transport is horse and cart, though sometimes that is with almost balletic assurance, there is no electricity, the community works together but threatens exclusion for disobeying strict rules. In compliance, Book dons the typical Amish outfit of plain black jacket and straw hat, buttons forbidden. And it is only when he breaks out of such strictures that his charges are threatened.

While the violence is powerful and when the time comes Book has a ruse or two up his sleeve, the most memorable scenes are as far removed from the crime thriller genre as  possible. First is when Rachel enjoys a tentative forbidden dance with Book. Then there is the love scene where he watches her wash her naked torso, desire written over each face. Finally is building the barn where in quiet but obvious ways Rachel reveals her growing feelings for Book while with hammer and saw he helps put together the structure to the soaring strains of Maurice Jarre’s most magnificent composition.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, 1989) excels in observation, a scene between Rachel and wooing farmer (Alexander Gudonov) takes place in silence, women whispering declaim attitudes to Rachel, her father Eli (Jan Rubes) waking Book before dawn, and several scenes of meals. Since restraint is the watchword, Weir draws exceptional performances from both principles, Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, 1982) receiving his only Oscar nomination, McGillis (Top Gun, 1986) nominated for a Bafta, likewise her only recognition at this rarified strata. Josef Sommer (Silkwood, 1983) is good as the ruthless but tormented corrupt cop, and both ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book, 2018) make Hollywood debuts. Lukas Haas is as wide-eyed as they come.

Although nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Music, it only picked up two, for editing and for an outstanding screenplay by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, both known almost exclusively as television writers.

An authentic, heartbreaking, multi-layered, adult picture like this is very hard to come by.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Witness (1985) *****”

  1. This is such a great film, one of Weir’s best, and Ford too, and Jarre’s score is just amazing. Saw this was on iplayer recently, but it’s reputation seems to have lessened over the years, and that’s a mistake; your review gives it the accolades it deserves.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Casablanca of the crime thriller, it could be indeed. Peter Weir is a great director, always in search for the truth beyond the horizon. But Witness, and the Amish world depicted here, is also very printed by the Fleischer’s Violent Saturday, isn’t it?

    Like

      1. Not the same story but it’s a criminal thriller too and there are few films in which the Amish are involved. It casts Victor Mature and Richard Egan for the lead but you’ll find Ernest Borgnine as a Amish head and Lee Marvin in the criminal bunch. You should have a look on it. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I know the French hold him in higher esteem than the Americans. He had a great body of work in virtually all genres from Narrow Margin to Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green to 10 Rillington Place and Tora! Tora! Tora!.

        Liked by 1 person

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