Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Passing Tramp at the Movies--Plain Murder: Witness (1985)

Witness: young Samuel Lapp observes a murderer

My mother, who was born and grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, is, I would hazard to guess, of about 90% German ancestry, even though all of her German ancestors came to this country before the American Revolution and you would think there might have been some dilution of that stock over the decades.  But there never really was, not until after World War Two.  She had a paternal great-grandmother named Hannah Buffington, but even Hannah had only partially English ancestry.  (It's through Hannah Buffington's ancestors, by the way, that I'm related though marriage to Raymond Chandler, who has Pennsylvania Quaker roots going back to the time of William Penn.  Through Hannah I'm also related to the lesser known though recently reprinted onefer mystery writer and doctor, Ada Lingo.)

Everybody else in my mother's ancestry besides the Buffingtons was German married to German.  My mother's own maternal grandmother, who saw Lincoln's funeral train in Harrisburg, knew German and practiced German folk medicine, aka powwow, giving rise to my interest in the vintage mystery novel The Hex Murder.  So, in short, my mother is about as "Pennsylvania Dutch" as can be.

Some forty-five years ago, when I was eight years old, I spent some time in Pennsylvania with my relatives, and it was then that I first saw their very cool old house, which originated as a small structure in the 1830s.  There was a carpenter's workshop with a loft off to the side where my uncle kept his dartboard (a carpenter and a shoemaker once owned the house) and there was as well a cellar and a well and a staircase hidden behind a door that went up to a big attic with a mounted buck's head that stared, glassy-eyed, right back at you--all manner of things to fascinate a young boy.

the old family house in Pennsylvania
the original portion of the house was on the left, the bigger portion being added later
 on the right (it feels almost like a separate house)
the carpenter's shop is in back on the left
pictured are my mother's grandmother and her three daughters
(my mother's mother is on the far right) and their boarder
my mother's old room was on the second floor on the left, above her
grandmother's old sitting room

I have since had an interest in rural Pennsylvania culture, something which, eleven years later, drew me to the 1985 crime thriller film Witness, which is set in Amish country.  when it opened I saw it with my parents, appropriately enough.  Three years later I had a job interview in Wilmington, Delaware and after it I took time to visit my uncle at the old house in Pennsylvania.  I slept up in my mother's old bedroom, which faced the main street of the town.  Amish had moved up into the area since my mother's day and in the early morning you could hear the clop clop clop of horse's hooves as Amish came through town in their buggies.  It inevitably reminded me of Witness.

The other day I came across an article on the net from the New York Post, dealing with, like most news stories these days, the coronavirus: "Pennsylvania's Amish community not 'as spooked' by coronavirus, mothers say."  One of the Amish mothers interviewed for the article is named Ruth Lapp, the latter being the same surname as Samuel Lapp, the young titular character of the film Witness.  A character in the film comments about how common the Lapp surname is in Amish country, and evidently it is!  So I thought I'd watch the film again.

culture clash
a bloody murder in the City of Brotherly Love takes
Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) into the bosom of an Amish household--
that of the recently widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis
and her inquisitive eight-year-old son, Samuel (Lukas Haas)

I should have watched in again sooner because I think I liked it better now than I did many years ago when I was nineteen.  Don't get me wrong, I liked it way back in 1985 (thirty-five years ago!), as did a great many people at the time.  In the U. S. the film grossed the equivalent of 161 million dollars in modern worth, and it scored eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, director (Peter Weir) and actor (Harrison Ford), winning two for original screenplay and film editing.  Although it lost best picture (to Out of Africa), it did win the Edgar for best crime/mystery film, beating out the Glenn Close thriller Jagged Edge and, more questionably in my view, the Coen Brothers' precociously brilliant Hitchcockian debut feature film, Blood Simple.

One thing I appreciate better now is just how fine the acting performances in Witness are.  Of course Harrison Ford deservedly got a lot of attention for his role in Witness, as stalwart police detective John Book, the role finally getting him out of his typecasting as Stephen Spielberg-George Lucas action hero in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films (although don't forget his earlier impressive turn in the landmark 1982 sci-fi crime noir film Blade Runner). 

I was interested to hear the producer of the film saying he was looking for someone like Gary Cooper in the 1956 film about Quakers, Friendly Persuasion, another best picture nominee. Big shoes to fill, but they managed it!  The entire cast is amazingly good, however.  And there are many other finer details which I don't believe I appreciated as much at the time.

a curious Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas) is struck by the sights at the
Philadelphia train station (which looks like an
Edward Hopper painting, though the Amish interiors
look like Johannes Vermeer)

The basic plot of Witness follows the consequences of a trip taken to the big city (Philadelphia), after the untimely death of her husband, Jacob Lapp, by lovely young Lancaster County, Pennsylvania widow Rachel Lapp and her eight-year-old son, Samuel (the latter is the same age I was when I visited Pennsylvania in 1974).  Rachel Lapp en route to visit her sister in Baltimore, but she and Samuel are held up several hours at the train station, during which time young Samuel, on a trip to the bathroom (Rachel seems a bit neglectful by today's standards), becomes an eyewitness to a violent murder.  Holed up in a toilet stall, he is, fortunately for him, unspotted by the two remorseless killers.  Thus he becomes Detective John Book's key to solving the crime, which has a high priority for Book, as the victim was an undercover cop.

At  a police station Samuel sees a photo in a newspaper clipping of a policeman, Lt. James McFee (a young Danny Glover, on the cusp of film stardom), and shockingly--or perhaps not--he identifies that man to Book as one of the killers.  Book now knows that he is dealing with a crooked cop, but when he takes this disturbing news to a superior, Chief Paul Schaeffer (played well by Josef Sommer, a German-American actor who seems to have specialized over his long career in weaselly authority figures), it turns out that the latter man is on the criminal activity too.  (This won't come as a surprise if you have seen many modern crime films.) 

Slimy Schaeffer promptly puts McFee onto Book, who survives McFee's murder attempt, though he is seriously wounded.  Of course the crooked cops now know there was a witness, some young Amish boy, so Book, after disappearing the police the records of the case, drives Rachel and Samuel out of the city and back to their community before collapsing himself from his wound.

tension in the air: John Book at table with Rachel Lapp
Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis

So now Book becomes a part of this Amish community, as the crooked cops attempt to track him down and kill him and the eyewitness.  This sets up the central dynamic of the film: the clash and gradual accommodation between Book's modern urban outlook and the Amish community's anachronistic rural values.  You might say this is really a culture clash film masquerading as a crime drama, except for the fact that it is punctuated with some effectively rendered sequences of violence.  (The finale, where Book employs information supplied him earlier by Samuel to great effect, is exceptional and made a great impression on me back in 1985.)  By director Peter Weir's own admission, it is the cultural aspect of Witness what drew him to what he terms a "genre film."

Since John Book spends so much of the film amid the Amish, it is important that this community be convincingly depicted, which it is.  Besides Rachel and her son Samuel, the major Amish characters are Rachel's stern but loving father-in-law, Eli Lapp (opera singer Jan Rubes), and her neighbor, Daniel Hochleitner (Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov), who is quite obviously quite smitten with Rachel. 

Both roles are unorthodoxly but superbly cast.  Godunov, who simply oozes charm, gives us a different picture of an Amish man, a worthy foil of sorts to John Book, whimsically humorous and even randy.  (He's introduced to us making a joke about a horse's testicle.)  In his first film role, Viggo Mortensen pops up as Daniel's brother, Moses, looking like a Botticelli angel.  I think he has one line in the film, but who cares?  He certainly looks the part.

Book doffs Amish duds; Hochleitner brothers
(Alexander Godunov and Viggo Mortensen) look on skeptically

Among the city folk--or "da English" as Eli calls them--I should also mention stage great Patti Lupone (!) as John Book's single mother sibling Elaine, who has briefly to put Rachel and Samuel up at her house in Philadelphia.  She only has a few scenes, but she's important in establishing Book as a caring, if somewhat overbearing, bachelor uncle of her children.  That's a crucial quality in Book's character as regards his relationship with young Samuel, with whom he shares some lovely scenes.  Through Samuel (and of course with his mother Rachel, more on that below) we see that Book can be sensitive and tender, not just the "tough cop"--although Harrison Ford does the tough cop very credibly too!

It helps of course that such a terrific performance is given by Lukas Haas as Samuel.  Witness is a film that depends heavily on actors' facial reactions, and Haas with his big black eyes and innocent mien is marvelously effective in this regard, as are Ford and McGillis, who really looks like she could be Haas's mother.  Haas, with Danny Glover, carries the pivotal bathroom murder scene with assurance.  (I should mention that while Glover's character is underwritten, he is smartly given, besides his casual cruelty, one memorable trait, the antithesis of Amish values, which Glover conveys with aplomb: vanity).

Samuel walks into an imminent crime scene

McGillis received supporting actress Golden Globe and Bafta nominations for this film, and I have to assume that she must have just missed an Oscar nomination, because she is superb here.  She captures the intensely quiet piety, modesty and spirituality associated with the Amish, or "plain people" as they are known, but she's also a real flesh and blood woman too, with an unmistakable sensual side to her.  This certainly comes out in her famous silent nude scene, but here, as in other places, it's really her face (and Harrison Ford's) that speaks volumes, not just her, ahem!, other showy body parts. 

Obviously Rachel is sexually attracted to John Book (as he is to her), but she's measured about it too, wanting to find out what kind of a man he truly is.  (She's impressed, for example, when she finds out he does carpentry.)  Could he really ever be a part of her world, she is wondering, or would he just not fit, like the pants of her dead husband which she symbolically gives him to wear.  Dead man's shoes, if you will?  (Rachel promises to let out those pants.)

I did find the Oscar-nominated synthesizer score by the famed Maurice Jarre a little jarring at items, but that was the eighties!  Although, to be sure, it's effective in the barn raising scene, one of the film's brilliant set pieces.  And the cinematography, by Oscar winner John Seale, is terrific.  I was struck on rewatching by how the Amish interiors resembled paintings by Johannes Vermeer, and I have since found out this was, naturally, by design.  I also thought the Philly bus station looked like something out of Edward Hopper.

the Amish are used to raising barns, not ruckuses,
but the outside world has different standards

Harrison Ford went on to do some additional notable crime genre films, like Roman Polanski's Parisian Hitchcock homage Frantic (1988); Presumed Innocent (1990), an adaptation of Scott Turow's bestselling crime novel; Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both based on the Tom Clancy espionage chart toppers; and The Fugitive (1993), a big screen version of the beloved Sixties series about the man wrongly accused of killing his wife.  (It really was the one-armed man, don't you know.)

Yet I don't believe Ford ever did anything as good again in this vein as Witness.

Kelly McGillis famously went on to play Tom Cruise's nominal love interest in the famously homoerotic military action film Top Gun (1986), but, more interestingly from my perspective, she also co-starred with Jodie Foster in the rape courtroom drama The Accused (1988) and the Hitchcockian mystery thriller The House on Carroll Street (1988).

While still a boy, Lukas Haas starred in an interesting little mystery-horror film called Lady in White (1988) and played supporting roles in the Holocaust courtroom drama Music Box (1989), with Jessica Lange, and the quirky film Rambling Rose (1991), with Laura Dern and Robert Duvall.  He received an Emmy nomination for the biographical AIDS drama The Ryan White Story (1989) and has stayed a working actor, but honestly I completely lost track of him after the bizarre Tim Burton sci-fi black comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), until he popped up in a small role at the beginning of the reality-bending heist film Inception in 2010.  (I remember saying to people, hey, that's the Witness kid!  Not to be confused with the E. T. kid!)

Alexander Godunov died tragically young at forty-five, though he made his mark in acting not only in Witness but in the pratfall comedy The Money Pit (1986), with Tom Hanks, and the hugely popular Bruce Willis action thriller Die Hard (1988).

Acclaimed native Australian director Peter Weir made the enigmatic mystery film Picnic at Hanging Rock way back in 1975, when he was a prodigy of thirty, but he never really did the crime genre after Witness as far as I am aware--although admirers of rousing period adventure films should fondly recall Weir's Master and Commander (2003), based on the Patrick O' Brian series novels, which like Witness was nominated for, but did not win, best picture.

Eli Lapp (Jan Rubes) instructs his grandson,
(who like his mother seems enchanted by John Book):
"The gun--the gun of the hand--is for the taking of human life.
Would you kill another man?
What you take into your hands, you take into your heart."


  1. As I recall this movie does balance the mystery/thriller plot very well with the depiction of Amish life and Book's fish out of water relation to it.

    If you're interested in seeing Lukas Haas in another well-done genre film I must recommend Rian Johnson's Brick. He's one of the heavies, and an intriguing one.

    1. Cool, I heard about Brick recently in connection with Rian Johnson and Knives Out, I'll have to check that out!

  2. Actually, that's not a bus station in Philly; it's the 30th Street train station, one of the iconic buildings in the city. Weir makes good use of its imagery.