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.

The Reckoning (1970) ****

Fans of Succession will love the boardroom battles and fans of Get Carter (1971) the gritty violence. Michael Marler (Nicol Williamson) is a thug whichever way you cut it. He’s a business hard-ass, at his nicest he’s obnoxious, at this worst brutal. He drives like a demon. Even in love, he’s fueled by hate, sex with wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) infernal. And all of this made acceptable, according to the left-wing tenets that underwrite the film, because he is a working-class man battling upper-class hypocrisy, never mind that his upper-class wife was hardly foisted upon him, nor that he was forced to live in luxury.

Unexpectedly, the film also explores other themes which have contemporary significance. Computers play a pivotal role and so does honor killing. The picture’s original title – A Matter of Honor – was ironic given that in the upper-class worlds in which Marler moved, courtesy of job and marriage, he is considered to have little in the way of chivalry. But in the working-class world he has escaped he must exact revenge according to a code of honor steeped in violence.   

This advert dates from October 1968, which gives an indication of how long the film’s release was delayed, not appearing until January 1970. Interestingly, the advert appeared in the U.S. trade magazine Box Office (October 28, 1968), suggesting Columbia had high hopes for the British production. The title here suggest a different approach to the movie.

The sudden death of his father sends Marler back to Liverpool where he discovers the old man was killed in a pub brawl. But the local doctor and the police, uninterested in complicating what must be a regular occurrence, view his death as accidental. So Marler takes it upon himself to uncover the culprits and wreak revenge, any kind of revenge on any kind of culprit, regardless of the fact that from the outset it is clear they will hardly be gangsters.  While contemplating violence, he strikes up a sexual relationship with the married Joyce (Rachel Roberts).

The story jumps between the back-stabbing corporate world to a scarcely less violent working class environment. The combination of charm and brute energy holds a certain appeal for Rosemary (Ann Bell) and helps keep him in the good books of his boss, but he is otherwise a bully, targeting the weak spots of anyone who stands in his way on his climb to the top, and while heading up the sales division of a company in trouble blaming everyone else for his own failings. And while scorning his wife’s upper-class friends is quite happy to enjoy the benefits of her lifestyle, the flashy car might be the result of his endeavors but not the huge posh house. Marler stitches up another associate with the assistance of another lover, secretary Hilda (Zena Walker), and his long-suffering wife finally takes umbrage at his venomous manner.

Marler hides his hypocrisy behind the façade of a left-wing class-struggle. John McGrath’s screenplay clearly intends Marler’s working-class background to provide him with a get-out-of-jail-free card as well as to launch an attack on upper classes seen as namby-pamby except when it comes to putting the poor in their place. The anti-class polemic has somewhat eroded over time but in its place can be found an accurate portrait of the social mores of ordinary people for whom, alcohol, the drug du jour, plays a massive part.  The going-home element is populated by endless terraced houses without a single parked car, vast caverns of pubs which host wrestling matches and are a tinder spark away from erupting in a brawl. This is in stark contrast to the high-living life Marler enjoys in London.

He has no desire to go back home, hasn’t visited in five years, escaping from there deemed a sign of success, and mostly returns metaphorically to draw on memories with which to scourge the upper-class and excuse his own behavior. 

Nicol Williamson (Inadmissable Evidence, 1968) delivers a tour de force, his screen presence never so vibrant, exhibiting the same raw appeal as Caine in Get Carter. At this point in his career, with a critically-acclaimed Hamlet on stage, he was perceived as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier and Columbia held up the release of The Reckoning to allow the Tony Richardson film of that stage production to pick up critical momentum. Oddly enough Rachel Roberts had not capitalized on her Oscar-nominated role in This Sporting Life (1963), this only her second movie in seven years. Initially coming across as brassy caricature, she soon softens into a surprisingly wistful character. Both Ann Bell and Zena Walker bring greater dimension to their characters rather than as adoring doormats. You can catch Paul Rogers (Three Into Two Won’t Go, 1969) and Tom Kempinski in supporting roles.

Director Jack Gold, who had worked with both Williamson and McGrath on his movie debut The Bofors Gun (based on the writer’s play), does a great job of capturing a particular period of British social history as well as allowing Williamson to stomp around in his pomp.

The Third Secret (1964) ***

Non-exploitative films about the psychologically vulnerable were thin on the ground during the 1960s and although The Third Secret is a bit talky nonetheless it does explore issues normally dealt with in heavy-handed fashion. Catherine Whitset (Pamela Franklin) the young daughter of a famous psychiatrist convinces television journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd) to investigate her father’s supposed suicide. Whitset needs the murder verdict because otherwise she will lose her home (no insurance payout on suicide). Stedman, Whitset’s patient, wants a similar outcome because his world would be turned upside down if the psychiatrist had committed a deed which he appeared steadfastly opposed.

The main suspects are all patients of the dead doctor – judge (Jack Hawkins), gallery owner (Richard Attenborough) and secretary (Diane Cilento). Although all outwardly successful socially-functioning upstanding members of society each is mired in mental agony – anger management, sexual inadequacy, depression, low self-esteem among problems addressed – defenses against which are perilously thin. Under sustained pressure each of the individuals will crack to reveal the cowering creature underneath.

But are they the killer or just condemned to torment? With the one man who could keep them sane removed from their lives, who knows what carnage they can self-inflict. All, even Stedman – given to bouts of terrible rage and drunkenness – seem capable of murder and there is every likelihood (as any viewer will guess) that his investigation could lead back to himself.

Director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) might have been suffering from low self-esteem himself having been unceremoniously dumped from The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and certainly the atmosphere is one of severity, not just characters teetering on the brink, but the black-and-white photography rendering London a wasteland, the tide on the Thames always out so the shore is just mud. However, his compositions do have style. The title’s explanation by the way is that the first secret is what you keep from the public, the second is what you hide from yourself, but the third is the truth.

Boyd (Ben-Hur, 1959) and Franklin (The Innocents, 1961) appear often on the point of hysteria, the girl’s high-pitched voice set against his growling outbursts. Attenborough (fresh from the heroics of The Great Escape, 1963) plays against type as a hand-wringing wannabe artist stuck in a role he despises. Hawkins, too, more used to heroic roles, is convincing as a man trying to escape his past. The neurotic Cilento has the best scenes, touching in her efforts to cling to normality. Judi Dench makes her debut in a bit part. The investigation takes the form of character analysis rather than “where were you on the night of…” which gives the picture an unique flavor, but best to know that going in rather than complain about the slow pace. If the psychological does not keep you hooked, there are sufficient twists to keep you watching.

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