Young Amish widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and her eight-year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) are travelling to her sister in Baltimore. Delayed in Philadelphia, Samuel visits the restroom…and there witnesses the murder of an undercover narcotics cop. John Book (Harrison Ford) is the detective assigned to the case. Samuel cannot identify anyone from photofits and identity parades…until he sees a picture of Book’s colleague McFee (Danny Glover). Book confides his suspicions to his boss Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer)…only to survive an attempt on his life by McFee. Book’s only option is to go undercover in the Amish community.
By 1985, Peter Weir had directed five feature films for the cinema and one for television in his native Australia. Needless to say, from the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the American major studios had courted him, and with The Last Wave onwards, there was some foreign investment in his films. But Witness was different by actually being made in the USA: Weir felt an urge to make a film in a new country, for the sake of new inspiration. Witness was a big hit, probably the biggest of Weir’s career relative to its budget ($65 million gross against a $12 million budget). It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning for Thom Noble’s editing and the screenplay by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley (Pamela Kelley also receives a story credit). It set Weir on a course of being one of the most consistent of top-rank directors in America: none of his films are terrible, and even the less successful ones have plenty of interest.
Watching the film again after some eighteen years, it stands up very well. Much more of a genre piece than much of Weir’s other films (it’s basically a modern-day western) it’s a very well made and acted film that somehow hasn’t quite attained classic status. At the time, much attention was given to Harrison Ford’s performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination). He was best known as Han Solo and Indiana Jones; given a contemporary role in a realistic film, he showed his ability to act. It’s a strong performance, certainly, though he’s matched by Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas, not to mention a strong and imaginatively chosen supporting cast. McGillis had made just one film before this (the previous year’s Reuben, Reuben, which had gained Tom Conti an Oscar nomination but has otherwise slipped into obscurity). Rachel was a difficult role to cast as too many actresses seemed too modern and knowing. McGillis, in what may still be her best performance (which should have earned her an Oscar nomination but didn’t), vanishes inside her role. More importantly, this film is an unrequited love story, told in glances and gestures rather than words. (It’s surprising to see how much Weir does without dialogue: there’s very little in the first fifteen minutes or so before Ford arrives.) McGillis’s eyes are fascinating, telling much of the story on their own. The scene where Book and Rachel dance to Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World” may have lost some of its power in the last twenty years, what with the song’s overuse in advertising since this film was made, but take yourself back to 1985 and your heart will skip a beat. The same goes for the scene where Book encounters a topless Rachel, washing herself. She turns to face him; nothing is said. Nothing needs to be. It’s one of the most erotic scenes in 80s American cinema. (Incidentally, in earlier versions of the script, Book and Rachel do make love. In the final film, they don’t. It’s far more effective that way. Unresolved sexual tension can take you a long way, as the makers of The X Files a decade later realised.)
Lukas Haas had made one film before this, a low-budget indie called Testament. At one point that film’s director, Lynne Littman, was to make Witness and she suggested Haas to Weir. Alexander Godunov was a Russian ballet dancer here making his debut in a dramatic role, as Book’s rival for Rachel’s affections: it’s a fine piece of left-field casting only surpassed by his later role in Die Hard. Jan Rubes was a Czech-born, Canadian-based opera singer who had been making occasional film appearances since the 1950s: with this role he became typecast as patriarchal figures. Further down the cast, in his film debut, is Viggo Mortensen.
John Seale had worked with Peter Weir as DP Russell Boyd’s camera operator in Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli, and had photographed the second unit on The Year of Living Dangerously. This was his first film for Weir as the DP, and also his first in America. His work – also Oscar-nominated – is masterly here, with Vermeer as an avowed inspiration for the lighting of the Amish interiors, and overall contributing much to the film’s mood. Maurice Jarre’s score is effective, but its reliance on synthesisers dates the film more than anything else.
I saw Witness three times in the 1980s, but not since then until this DVD arrived for review. What is remarkable is how much that mainstream American filmmaking has changed since then. Its quality was never in doubt, but Witness was always ultimately a straight-down-the-line thriller (with added romance) and no art movie. It opened in February in the US, hardly a release for Oscar bait. But what impresses it now is its subtlety: Weir and his scriptwriters trust us to work some things out for ourselves without recourse to reams of expository dialogue or overemphasis. I’ve already noted how much Weir does without dialogue in several key scenes. In the thriller-western plot, he works in some debate on whether or not violence is a solution to anything, and also tells a genuinely touching love story, one that’s all the more bittersweet for being unrequited.
Witness is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, opening up the matte slightly from the original ratio of 1.85:1. (This seems to be Paramount policy.) The transfer is anamorphically enhanced and it’s very good: sharp and colourful, with good shadow detail even in the darker scenes. There’s a slight grain but nothing untoward.
The soundtrack options are English in Dolby Digital 5.1 and a surround-encoded 2.0 track in either English or a French dub. (For some reason French isn’t amongst the subtitle options but Spanish is.) Witness was made in Dolby Stereo, but more than half a decade before digital sound arrived. The soundtrack here lacks the sharpness and clarity of a track that’s digital for every step of the process, from recording to final mixing, and occasionally some dialogue gets muffled. The 5.1 track seemed to me a transference of the original stereo mix rather than an actual redesign. It’s not reference quality material, given the limitations of the source: the surrounds are used mostly for Jarre’s music score and there are only occasional uses of directional sound. The subwoofer is called upon from time to time. There are sixteen chapter stops.
The DVD begins with trailers for Airplane!, Tommy Boy, the John Wayne DVD Collection and the first season of MacGyver, but these can be skipped over. Peter Weir is known for his reluctance to record commentaries, but he does feature heavily in the main extra, a documentary, “Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness”, which is feature-length in itself. The documentary is divided into five parts, with a play-all option: “Origins” (20:35), “Amish Country” (14:36), “The Artistic Process” (9:49), “The Heart of the Matter” (8:22), “Denouement” (10:32). Most of the other people still alive who were involved with the film are interviewed, with much input from producer Edward S. Feldman and Ford amongst others. It’s a fine, and admirably comprehensive making-of, with little fat despite its length.
The additional extras are more standard. There’s a deleted scene (4:10) which was included in the film for its American network TV showings, three TV spots (“Action”, “Love” and “John Book”, with a play all option, totalling 1:36) and the theatrical trailer (1:32).
Witness is a first-rate film that stands up very well today, and this “Special Collector’s Edition” presents it very well on DVD.