Play into Film – “Hostile Witness” (1968)

Adapting a play into a film requires more specialist skills than transforming a book into a movie. A book either needs considerably trimmed (example, The Detective) or the requiring a complete overall (as with Blindfold). It’s much harder to muck around with a play which has usually been well-honed, edited down night after night, from a run on the stage. The main decision the writer charged with the adaptation has to make is a tricky one – whether to open it up or not. Can a play, especially a thriller, sustain the tension it achieved on stage without additional elements – and therefore appear “stagey” on film – or must it be expanded in the hope of generating greater tension or ambiguity, making characters more sympathetic or clarifying the plot.  The story in both play and film concerns top lawyer Simon Crawford being arrest for murder.

Jack Roffey, adapting his own play, decided the original needed opening up. The play’s structure consisted of two acts, each containing two scenes. The first scene lasted 21 pages, scenes two and four 23 pages each, while scene three is considerably shorter just 12 pages. So, except for the third scene, the play’s rhythm is consistent. And while this might look as if most scenes last 20-plus minutes, an inordinately long time to sustain rhythm on the screen, there are lot of moment where various characters go offstage to concentrate action between fewer characters, thus heightening tension or creating character conflict.

 A lot of information that was imparted purely via dialogue in the play transforms on screen into a series of extra scenes. This is especially true at the beginning. The movie’s opening scene, set in a court and concerning the trial of a brothel-keeper, was not in the play; it was dealt with in passing at the beginning of the play, as a character reporting on the outcome, albeit that some of the reported speech became dialogue in the film. It was probably felt that the movie audience had to be introduced right away to a courtroom since the play’s opening scene takes place entirely outside the courtroom, in the offices of the leading character Simon Crawford (Ray Milland). The play begins in the present and the back story, that Crawford is widowed, recently lost his daughter in a hit-and-run traffic accident, and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, is dealt with as exactly that – events from the past. The film puts them in the present. We are shown the daughter, who clearly has a strong relationship with her father, we hear the accident (which occurs offscreen), witness Crawford’s unravelling and the murder that forms the core of the story. And we are also treated to some additional scenes, not in the play, including an initial police investigation.

The upshot is that it takes 25 minutes for Crawford to be arrested. Compare that to the play. He announces his imminent arrest within the first five minutes. For pure audience shock the play holds the upper hand. I’m not sure the film ever matches that moment. Pre-arrest, in the film, Crawford’s erratic behaviour and hospital confinement add to a sense that he might be unhinged or, in classic film noir, feeding the audience a line. His state of mind is complicated by making visual some incidents that were just verbal in the play.

There are three major departures from the play. The first was the introduction of a private eye whom Crawford takes by the throat in frustration at the gumshoe producing no results. This suggests early on that Crawford is capable of violence. But it also causes a complication. In the play there is only one main private eye, name of Armitage, whose evidence proves key in the case against Crawford, but he is missing and in fact never appears. Apart from testifying to Crawford’s murderous inclination the introduction of this other private eye, named Rosen, makes little sense. The second is to bring quicker to the fore the involvement of junior lawyer Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms in the film). In the play she takes over his defence when her senior quits on a point of principle but in the film it is almost from the start.

Programme for the premiere of the play in London’s West End.

The third development also involves Larkins. But I’m not sure this one works in building up Crawford-Larkins into a potential May-December relationship. In the play it seems more obvious that Larkins is a daughter substitute rather than a potential love interest but the film adds an additional scene where she brings celebratory goodies to the lawyer and her demeanor suggests sublimated ardor. The way director Ray Milland uses looks between the pair and an occasional touching of hands makes the alternative more obvious.

You could argue that the film could have simply had Crawford arrested in the first five minutes but that would have necessitated police interrogation. The device brilliantly used in the play of imminent arrest would have worked in the film, I believe, and made for a more explosive start, and then either sticking with the play structure or dealing with the backstory in flashbacks.

It’s worth noting that plays on the page look far more intense than screenplays. There is nothing but line after line of dialogue whereas a screenplay always has cuts or directions to interrupt the flow of material. Dialogue, of course, being what a play relies upon more than the camera, Roffey, as the adaptor, was lucky in having so many choice lines at his disposal. Ray Milland, in his role as director, unfortunately, was not able to add atmospheric heft.

Hostile Witness (1968) ***

Shoddy initial release means this is unlikely to have been on your radar, but this entertaining courtroom drama plays on madness, involves minimal sleight-of-hand, employs some notable reversals as a defence strategy sinks under the weight of its own misplaced ambition.  Courtroom dramas were a scarce commodity in the 1960s, the sub-genre almost killed off by U.S. television hits like Perry Mason (1957-1966) and The Defenders (2961-1965).  Although, technically, Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird were of the same ilk, they did not rely on last-minute intervention or the normal twists and turns of legal dramas as evidenced by Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Hostile Witness only saw the light of day because Oscar-winner Ray Milland had starred in the Broadway version of the British play, author Jack Roffey experienced in the mechanics of this kind of fare after British television series Boyd Q.C. (1956-1964).

Daughter dead in a tragic car accident, top-notch Q.C. Simon Crawford (Ray Milland) is accused of killing the man he believed deliberately responsible. Unable to defend himself, he relies on his junior Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms). Circumstantial evidence links him to the crime. Questions surround his mental health, which disintegrated following his daughter’s death, especially after he cannot prove claims that would exonerate him. Casting around for the potential killer leads to a cul de sac, each clue that could absolve him rapidly dissolves and as he is soon fighting for his life. And as tension mounts, the defence team is soon in disarray, Sims quitting on a point of principle. Like all the best court cases the proof is in front of his eyes if only he could see it, and the traditional last-minute witness and twist does not disappoint. 

The courtroom aspect is very well done, great banter between the lawyers and swift and witty put-downs by the presiding judge (Felix Aylmer). While the story demands that Crawford remains off centre-stage at times, his presence, as a tense observer of proceedings that could spell his fate, calls on Milland to display probably the widest set of non-verbal reactions you will ever encounter. Syms (East of Sudan, 1964) is excellent in a role that offers greater scope than her usual female lead and while carrying a torch for Crawford she is more than capable to standing up to him and is ruthless in cross-examination. Geoffrey Lumsden (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) tickles as a befuddled major and Raymond Huntley (later a success in Upstairs, Downstairs) sparkles as the grumpy prosecutor. To some extent, the picture plays on the film noir ethos that good guys often turn out to be anything but and Milland has the undoubted gift of looking both villain and hero dependent on the time of day.

By this point Welsh-born Milland was an odd refugee from Hollywood’s Golden Age, fallen far below the box office peaks of Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend (1948) and noir turns like The Big Clock (1948). Apart from Dial M for Murder (1954) he was mostly became a television stalwart – the eponymous Ray Milland Show (1953-1955) and Markham (1959-1960) – and turned his hand to occasional direction. An unexpected dip into horror – The Premature Burial (1962), Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) failed to revive his mainstream career and prior to Hostile Witness had only appeared in one other movie.

For a time Hostile Witness did look as if he would put him back on top after taking up an offer to make his Broadway debut in the play. Although not a stand-out hit, it ran for a decent 157 performances, then went on tour in the U.S. and later Australia, leaving Milland with the impression that, with himself directing to cut costs and running to a tight 24-day shooting schedule in Britain, it might just be the correct vehicle. Unfortunately, it was probably the staid direction that put paid to any prospect of box office success. A director like Billy Wilder or Hitchcock would have concentrated far more on character ambiguity and  made more of the unreciprocated romance and either tightened or opened up the original play to add more tension. Even so, it is pleasant enough viewing, not a dud by any means.

A Fever in the Blood (1961) ****

Blistering B-film from writer Roy Huggins (TV’s The Fugitive) that marries political chicanery to legal jiggery-pokery in a movie that races from one twist to another. In his role as producer Huggins calls upon actors he made stars from the television series he created – Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (77 Sunset Strip), Jack Kelly (Maverick) – and gives Angie Dickinson (Oceans 11) the female lead. Huggins’ brilliant premise is to ignore the dilemma of the man, Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), nephew of a former Governor, wrongly accused of the murder of his wife. Instead the film concentrates on accuser District Attorney Dan Callahan (Kelly) and Judge Lee Hoffman (Zimbalist Jr), both of whom, running for the vacant Governor post, stand to make massive political capital from the publicity surrounding a sensational trial.

Former buddies, Callahan and Hoffman are now bitter rivals after the former had reneged on a promise to support the latter’s bid for the political post. Also throwing his hat into the ring is Senator Alex Simon (Don Ameche) whose wife Cathy (Dickinson) once had romantic yearnings for Hoffman. The only one of the trio who had anything approaching a conscience is Hoffman and that is immediately tested when the Senator offers him a bribe to stand down from the race, which the Judge, after an appeal from Cathy, does not report to the authorities. There is another ploy open to Hoffman. Should he find reason to declare a mistrial, that would sabotage Callahan’s bid since he would not be riding high in the media after convicting a celebrity killer.

The picture jumps from intense politics, the wheeling-dealing and the wrapping up of votes, to a  trial in a packed courtroom very much in the Perry Mason vein with surprise witnesses, shocks, objections sustained or overruled, clever arguments, dueling attorneys, and last-minute evidence. A witness has Thornwall running away from the scene of the crime and when his wife is painted as a nymphomaniac that provides ample motive.  Further evidence pushes the defendant into a worse corner. But all the while over the trial hangs the stink of political machination.

There are another half-dozen brilliant twists not least of which is Judge Hoffman letting conscience go hang and embarking on a couple of dodgy endeavors himself including what amounts to sheer blackmail. The District Attorney, one of the sharpest tools in the box, reacts to every setback with a cunning that would have been criminal had it not been legal. Also hanging there is potential adultery between Cathy and the widowed Hoffman.

The writer in Huggins is a past master at shifting the cards in the deck and this has so many twists and turns it feels like a whole series of The Fugitive crammed into one episode. There is as much self-awareness of the underbelly of politics as in Advise and Consent (1962), as much deceit and corruption, as much principle disguised as honor. But the plot here is so tight, the characters dealing with twists and turns that the movie has no requirement for the depth of characterization that would have been brought to the picture by a Henry Fonda or Charles Laughton. Huggins proves you can have just as much fun without the big boys. None of the stars with the exception of Angie Dickinson made a dent on the Hollywood A-list but they are all perfectly acceptable, and once Huggins tightens the screws plot-wise the last thing on your mind is wishing for a better cast.   

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