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.

The Detective (1968) ****

Perhaps the boldest aspect of this raw look at the seamier side of life as a New York cop is that perennial screen loverboy Frank Sinatra plays a cuckold. Prior to what is always considered the more hard-hitting cop pictures of the 1970s – Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973) etc – this touched upon just about every element of society’s underbelly. Despite an old-school treatment, more a police procedural than anything else, homosexuality, nymphomania, corruption, police brutality, and a system that ensured poverty remained endemic all fell into its maw. And, for the times, several of these issues were dealt with in often sympathetic fashion.

Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra), an ambitious but principled detective gunning for promotion, investigates the murder of a prominent homosexual while dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Karen (Lee Remick) and colleagues on the take. When other cops want to beat confessions out of suspects or strip them naked to humiliate them, Leland intervenes to prevent further brutality. He is not just highly moral, but takes a soft approach to criminals, not just playing the “good cop” part of a good cop/bad cop double-act but genuinely showing sympathy. Not only does Leland leap to the defense of those he feels unfairly treated, but he trades punches with those meting out such treatment. In addition, he clearly feels guilt over sending to the electric chair a man he believes should be treated in a mental institution.

Although at first glance this appears a homophobic picture, it is anything but, Leland showing tremendous sympathy towards homosexual suspect Felix (Tony Musante) – whom his  colleagues clearly despise – to the extent of holding his hand and gently cajoling him through an interview. Later, rather than condemn a bisexual the film shows empathy for his torment. Certainly, some of the attitudes will appear dated, especially the idea of sexual expression as a brand of deviancy, but the film takes a genuinely even-handed approach. Through the medium of Leland’s perspective, it is clearly demonstrated that it is other police officers who have the warped notions.  

Having solved the first murder, Leland takes up the case of an apparent suicide at the behest of widow Norma McIver (Jacqueline Bisset), only for this to lead not only to civic corruption on a large scale but back to the original investigation. Leland also has a wider social perspective than most cops and there is a terrific scene where he berates civic authorities for creating a system that perpetuates poverty. The ending, too, casts new light on Leland’s  character.

By this point, most screen cops were defined by their alcoholism and ruined domestic lives, but this is altogether a more tender portrait of an honest cop. Leland’s relationship with Karen is exceptionally well done. Normally, of course, it is the man who usually strays. This reversal in the infidelity stakes adds a new element. Karen has more in common with an independent woman like the Faye Dunaway character in The Arrangement (1969).

While playing the good cop would come relatively easy to an actor like Sinatra, carrying off the role of the hurt husband is a much tougher ask. Coupled with his sensitive approach to criminals, this is acting of some distinction, a mature performance by a mature star.  This is the last great Hollywood role by Lee Remick (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968) and she brilliantly portrays a woman trapped by her self-destructive desires.

Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt, 1969) leads an excellent supporting cast that includes Jack Klugman (The Split, 1968), Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Robert Duvall (The Godfather, 1972), Lloyd Bochner (Point Blank, 1967) and Al Freeman Jr. (Dutchman, 1966).

While Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961, and Tony Rome, 1967) was viewed very much as a journeyman director, he brings an inventive approach and some surprising subtleties to the picture. He opens with a very audacious shot. It looks like you are seeing skyscrapers upside down, as if a Christopher Nolan sensibility had entered a time warp, until you realize it is the city reflected off a car roof. There are some bold compositions, often with Sinatra appearing below Remick’s sightline, rather than the normal notion that the star must be taller or at least the same height as everyone else.

Oscar-winning Abby Mann (The Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961) adapted the bestseller by Roderick Thorp who achieved greater fame much later for writing the source novel for Die Hard (1988) – Nothing Lasts Forever, a sequel to The Detective. For the Bruce Willis film Joe Leland became John McClane. Sinatra, although 73 at the time, was offered that role first as part of his original contract for The Detective.

In The Detective Sinatra’s wife Mia Farrow was initially contracted to play the part of Norma McIver but pulled out when Rosemary’s Baby (1968) overshot its schedule. Partly in revenge, Sinatra sued her for divorce.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.