Op-ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Witness’ (#82)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
I know that the 1980s are looked at as one of the worst decades in cinema as the entertainment for adults that had thrived in the 1970s was replaced by franchise driven action and science fiction films that seemed to have contempt for their audiences. A lot of the trends that have caused mainstream cinema to seem formulaic and uninventive today originated in that era. For every Steven Spielberg, there were about a dozen Newt Arnolds who pushed out trashy action flicks that focused on poorly directed action set pieces and barely clothed B-list movie stars. Obviously, there were plenty of beloved classics that were released during this decade and it’s not like all of the trends in the 1980s were bad but I wouldn’t say that cinephiles look back fondly on a time in which Flashdance (1983) could be one of the biggest hits of the year.
Witness feels like a product of its era as it attempts to combine a generic crime thriller about corruption in the police force with a romantic drama about two very different people falling in love. It would be easy to mock it because it is incredibly earnest and it was made with the intention of winning awards in mind and yet I think it feels far more sophisticated than other 1980s films. It doesn’t completely work and I think that it fails as a crime drama because it deals with tropes from that genre in an unimaginative manner but as a romance, it is fairly successful. It is so achingly earnest and desperate to make the audience feel something that you are swept up in its rather silly story. It doesn’t try to defuse the soapy melodrama with humor or irony and for a film that was made to appeal to young men, it is shockingly sincere and pure in the way that it presents love and sexuality.
The film deals with widowed Amish woman Rachel Lapp, Kelly McGillis, takes her son Samuel, Lukas Haas, to the city to board a train to Baltimore where her relatives live. Their journey is cut short when Samuel witnesses a police officer being brutally murdered by two other men. Police Detective John Book, Harrison Ford, is assigned to the case and Samuel quickly identifies one of his fellow police officers as the man who committed the crime causing him to realize the corruption the surrounds him. Aware that the three of them will be killed if found he runs away with Lapp and Samuel to their Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he struggles to fit in while dealing with a mutual attraction to Lapp.
The crime elements of this story just don’t impress today as there is something workmanlike about Peter Weir’s direction during the scenes in which men have to shoot at one another and children hide out in bathrooms. We feel like we have seen all of this stuff before in second-rate Mel Gibson vehicles and we wonder why this is such a highly regarded piece of work. I say all of this as somebody who usually isn’t interested in stories about heroic cops taking down the establishment but I do think that Witness fails to rise to the level of one of the brilliant Sidney Lumet productions that helped to boost the reputation of the genre. When you look at Serpico (1973) you see the ways in which Lumet is more preoccupied with understanding the bizarre double standards that existed within the corrupt police force in 1970s New York City rather than handing us scene after scene of criminals being violently murdered. I didn’t feel like Witness had anything knew to say about what it means to be a police officer and how it feels to be on the run. It steals from revolutionary crime dramas that were made in the 1930s but it ends up feeling like a tired re-tread instead of having the freshness of a James Cagney picture. I say all of this because I think that this is what stops Witness from being the thoroughly entertaining yarn that it wants to be. The central romance feels so lively and believable that we want the film to stop cutting away to scenes of action and focus on its greatest asset. I am mostly evaluating this as a romance so I will largely be talking about that aspect of the film but I wanted to explain why I don’t love Witness as a whole.
The romance does end up being the most effective part of the film and that is mostly due to McGillis’s remarkably warm, lived-in performance and some very well staged scenes that build sexual tension between the two characters. McGillis paints a portrait of a woman who is essentially happy living in an Amish community. She is not somebody who wants to step out of her comfort zone and even if she isn’t passionately in love with the Amish man who has expressed romantic interest in her she would willingly take on him on in order to provide her son with a father figure. So often we think of complex female heroines as people who are angry at the world as we expect them to loudly push back against the restrictions that society has placed upon them but McGillis suggests that this a woman who wants to engage in subtle subversion. She loves her male family members and trusts them but even at the beginning of the film you sense the fact that she is annoyed by their condescension and lack of faith in her. She builds up our expectations for this character and turns her into more than just a sweet, innocent girl who gets randy in the presence of an exceptionally virile police officer.
McGillis finds a way to elevate scenes that could have felt impossibly cheesy as she has an intense conviction in her eyes that convinces us that we should care about scenes that would traditionally appear in made for television productions funded by instant coffee manufacturers. At one point she has to nurse an injured Ford back to health and he happens to have his shirt off while he lies on the bed and moans. All of this occurs in candlelight and McGillis has to softly caress his skin while staring at him as though she is thinking impure thoughts. If anybody has read a paperback romance novel they will be familiar with scenes like this as it provides a way for the two characters bond as they have to get through a life-threatening situation together and it allows the woman to express sexual yearning as the man invariably reveals part of his body. McGillis handles this scene so beautifully as she makes it clear that Lapp is embarrassed by the feelings she is having and yet she doesn’t give us the girlish blushing that we are so used to seeing. Lapp is very much a woman and she adopts a stiff, patrician posture in order to mask the flashes of desire that she occasionally reveals. I also felt like she didn’t lean on the maternal quality that her character could have adopted too much. She wants to seem professional as she goes about treating this man and she really just wants to get him off her hands because she is afraid of the feelings that he inspires in her.
This scene also handles nudity and the revealing of skin in a tasteful but erotic manner that was rare in 1980s cinema. We tend to think of erotica when we think back to the 1980s as the controversial 9 ½ Weeks (1986) caused a stir for featuring graphic nudity and exploring the idea of kinky sex. Often these ‘erotic’ thrillers were not actually sexy and they ended up turning the audience off because people ended up looking like pieces of meat. They failed to tap into the emotions that people feel when they consider the idea of having sex with somebody who might not be around to form a committed relationship with them. There is something tacky about the way that Mimi Rogers has to bounce her breasts around for the camera in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and that scene just ends up seeming a little sad as the actress is clearly uncomfortable with the fact that she has to show off her body without being given the opportunity to act. The audience didn’t care about the characters and some of these films almost felt like nature documentaries as you were watching creatures manually having sex without understanding them on a human level. Witness overcomes these problems because of unusually sensitive direction from Weir as he seems to know that less is more when it comes to getting the audience worked up.
Ford is not one of those actors who is known for exposing his body in front of the camera and some have compared him to classical movie stars as his sex appeal is mostly derived from the fact that he seems to be fighting against his sexual urges. We don’t see much of his body in this film but in the nursing scene, we do get to see the skin of his back and McGillis presses against it softly. This adds an extra intimacy to the scene as McGillis is left to wonder about seeing the rest of his body and as her eyes follow the line of his body we are also left to wonder what he looks like. I sound awfully prurient as I say all off this but I did think that this was an effective attempt to get the audience to do most of the leg work in building Ford up as an object of desire. If he had been fully naked we might have been a bit unnerved as it would have felt like too much, too fast and there wouldn’t be the slow burn of eroticism that characterizes so much of the central relationship.
The later, more infamous scene in which nudity is put to use is even more miraculous in the way that it doesn’t gild the lily. It is fair to say that men are highly sexualized in erotica but the 1980s were full of sex comedies that demeaned women by presenting them as dumb sex objects who were forever walking around without clothes. In those films, the camera leers over the curves of their body but you also get the uneasy sense that the audience is being asked to resent the women for being good looking and many of these comedies featured scenes in which these sex objects were attacked by nerdy young men. Witness is not a sex comedy but it does feature a scene in which McGillis bathes in the nude before discovering the fact that Ford is watching her. The camerawork is simple and you don’t imagine the director licking his lips as McGillis turns around to reveal her breasts. An extra layer of tension is introduced to the scene because she is bathing and she expects to feel comfort because she is in a position where she doesn’t have to worry about how others feel about her. She feels shocked when she realizes that the man she likes has been watching her and he has seen her at her most vulnerable but then she decides to take charge of this moment and makes it clear that she wants him by presenting herself to him. This is something that is very difficult for her and we see the hurt in her eyes as he expresses doubt and doesn’t openly return her affections.
Sexual tension has already been built up before this scene so we know that these people are physically attracted to one another but their emotions have also been considered. We know that Lapp is a woman who believes in what she has been taught within her community and she feels fearful when she chooses to express sexual interest in a man in such a scandalous way. We also know that he doesn’t want to hurt her because he knows that he will have to leave this community and can’t deal with the emotional baggage that would come with starting a relationship with her and then leaving her. They both have reasons not to act on their attraction and that is why there is concern in their eyes as they begin to confront their mutual desire. The shot of McGillis’s naked torso is matter of fact but Ford communicates the fact that he is threatened by her outrageous display and can’t handle the idea of engaging in sex with her. We are more engaged in the emotions that the characters feel in this scene than we are in the appearance of McGillis’s body. The term tasteful is usually seen as negative as some immediately connect it to the idea of stuffiness and pretension but I think it is the perfect way to describe what Weir does with this scene as he shows us just enough and then lets the actors and the audience do the rest of the work.
I also appreciate the fact that the awkward moment in which Ford has to tell McGillis that he is unwilling to ‘make love’ with her is short but painful. McGillis can’t even look at Ford as he expresses his thoughts in a cold, unemotional tone and we never really see her face in this scene but the disappointment on both ends is palpable and they are both emanating frustration.
After this, we get to the best scene in the entire film as the two leads finally kiss and some of their tension is resolved. It begins with McGillis noticing Ford standing outside and we watch her slowly deciding to go outside and kiss him. The camera rests on McGillis’s face for a few seconds and we see her shoring up the confidence to do something unusually bold and dangerous. She places her bonnet on the table to signify the fact that she is letting go of the conservative values of the Amish community for just a moment and then runs outside with excitement in her eyes. She and Ford walk towards one another and both appear of certain of the fact that the other person desires them. They then enter into a messy, unpractised kiss that is heavy on passion without feeling like it has been staged to look overly romantic. I just hate it when you can tell that the actors had to stand around for hours and practice kissing in a fake manner because this rehearsed quality usually translates to the kiss that ends up in the film and it lacks both spontaneity and an unexpected thrill.
The messiness of the kiss also endears you to the characters as they seem like two normal people rather than being untouchable movie stars. She is a single mother who hasn’t kissed a man in a long time and he has been more focused on his job than on romancing women so it makes sense that their first kiss wouldn’t be perfect. They laugh in between brief pecks as they know how awkward their movements seem but there is a strain on their faces when they do kiss as they know that they can only experience this for a brief period of time. You feel the regret that they feel as they have given into the passion and there is no way to go back to being romantically unattached but they also feel like they should have started kissing sooner and regret the fact that they have wasted so much time. They also appear to be hugging each other at certain points and this is a pleasant touch as this isn’t the sort of aggressive kiss that two sexual partners who don’t know one another might have. These are people who do feel something for one another and they want to take care of each other as they begin to explore each other’s bodies. They press their lips together firmly but this isn’t one of those sexless, angry kisses that appeared in films made during the era of the Motion Picture Production Code as McGillis and Hurt don’t seem to be pummelling their respective faces with their lips. I started to think about how insecure I would feel if I kissed a man who I wasn’t meant to kiss in full view of people who had known me my entire life but I feel like the film almost makes that sexy. McGillis wants Ford so much that she is willing to sacrifice her standing in this town and their kiss is an act of defiance against the unfairly restrictive rules that have been set.
The score enhances the mood of this scene as it almost adds religious overtones to it. It is a very 1980s score as it is heavy with synth but I must admit to identifying 1980s film scores as one of my guilty pleasures. I will listen to “Love on a Real Train” by Tangerine Dream and hum along to it so clearly my tolerance for this sort of music is high. The scene is also shot in an unfussy style and Weir doesn’t take us out of the moment by using fancy camera angles that wouldn’t have added anything to the scene. He just lets the scene play out and takes his time in capturing this lovely kiss that they share. We also don’t have to see the two of them pulling apart and walking back to their rooms. Weir is happy to let the scene end with the two of them kissing and we don’t get to see how far their interaction progresses or where it ended. We might not have enjoyed watching them go through the walk of shame when they have to get some sleep and Weir is smart enough to give us the good stuff without punishing us by showing us the less romantic aspects of the two of them engaging in this kiss.
I have noted all of the things that I loved about Witness and you will notice that most of them were to do with unspoken interactions and beats in McGillis’s performance. This is a genuinely sexy film for adults that acknowledges the difficulties that come with wanting a person you can’t have. It does have certain deficiencies however as the script is not exceptional and I wouldn’t say that the dialogue is sparkling or finely observed. Often the lines that Ford delivers betray the fact that this film is based on an airport novel that was hardly high art and he ends up speaking like the sort of everyman who populated B-movies in the 1930s. McGillis tells us more about her character than the script does and Weir seems to understand the fact that the pivotal scenes need to rest on her silently reacting to certain developments. You get the feeling that the director and the actors were working around this script and they manage to craft some pretty strong scenes without the help of dialogue. Yes, the script might have vaguely described the actions that McGillis takes in certain scenes and the movements that she makes but all of the nuance was seemingly drawn out of her performance.
Some might take issue with the fact that the romance between Book and Lapp is not the love affair to end all love affairs but I appreciated the fact that this is more of a low key relationship. These are two people who wouldn’t have fallen in love or even lust if they had only known each other for a few days. Because they were thrown together it forced them to become close and because he was so different to all of the men that she had met he held a certain fascination for her. Their relationship likely wouldn’t have survived if one of them had tried to integrate into the society that the other occupied and in some ways their affair has to be brief. They are both practical enough to know that they must separate and the film doesn’t suggest that they will be miserable for the rest of their lives without each other. Lapp might settle down with an Amish man and become a pillar of her community while Book will rise through the ranks as a police officer but they will always cherish their memories of one another. The treatment of the end of their relationship was in keeping with the mature tone of the rest of the film and we are asked to see Lapp and Book as people who put the other priorities in their life first. If the characters had done something selfish like choosing to stay together it would have felt like the film had made a wild tonal shift but the poignant, subtle shot of McGillis watching her love leave town forever was the perfect shot to close out this love story.
Witness is one of the best films I have seen yet and while that isn’t saying much as I am only five films in I would say that this is a marked improvement over something like Love Story (1970). The quality of acting and direction in Witness was astonishing and while the film is held back by the fact that it also wants to be a formulaic action thriller it does include some scenes that leave a strong impression on the audience. I am rather surprised that it made its way onto the list as I feel like people don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe it was more culturally relevant in the early 2000s and everybody was talking about that kiss scene but it doesn’t enjoy the reputation of other entries on the list. I assume it was voted in because it was a financial and critical hit upon release and it received many awards nominations in 1985. I feel like this was one of the more idiosyncratic choices on the list and I think this was one of the few films that the voters had actually seen because people who hadn’t seen it might have assumed that it was just an action movie and not a romantic drama. So far, the 1980s are leaving me highly satisfied.