Sunday, February 08, 2015

When Worlds Collide

"We're all very happy that you're going to live, John Book. We didn't know what we would do with you if you'd died."

Rachel (Kelly McGillis)

"We're inside this story," declared film critic Roger Ebert when "Witness" premiered 30 years ago today.

That was an astute observation for, indeed, the viewer was inside the story — and for the reasons Ebert outlined. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

For me, what was fascinating was to study the clash between two worlds — the modern world and the (literally) horse–and–buggy world of the Amish — in what undoubtedly struck moviegoers of the time as a fairly common event, the murder of a man.

Maybe my fascination with the collision of those two worlds stems from my upbringing. My father was a religion professor.

Anyway, the movie began with a kind of glimpse of Amish life. The residents of the community gathered for the funeral of one of their own — the husband of a character, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who would become prominent in the story. The Amish keep mostly to themselves in real life as they did in the movie, but there were times when they had to interact with modern people ("the English," the Amish called them). Rachel and her young son temporarily left their Amish home to visit her sister, taking the train.

The murderer and the victim were of the modern world, but the witness was a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who was in a bathroom stall in a Philadelphia station and saw what happened as he peeped through the slot between the stall door and the stall walls.

The two worlds were on a collision course.

The investigating officer was Harrison Ford, and he had to question the boy, who told him that two men had been involved in the murder, but he could only see one, a black man, which launched an investigation into all the known black criminals in the city. Ford subjected the boy to police lineups and photo albums, but no suspects could be identified — until he spotted a picture of Danny Glover, a respected narcotics officer, in a glass case at the police station.

Glover was the one the boy had seen cutting a man's throat in the bathroom at the station.

Ford's character remembered that Glover had been in charge of a raid of some high–priced chemicals used in the production of speed — and that the chemicals had disappeared while in police custody. The obvious conclusion was that Glover had been involved in the disappearance, maybe even the ringleader, and was selling them. The killing had been done to protect the guilty.

He shared what he knew with his superior, then was ambushed by Glover in a parking garage. Ford's character realized that, since he had only told his superior what he knew, his superior must be corrupt as well and had tipped off Glover. Ford was wounded in the parking garage shootout.

At this point, the two worlds collided in full. Ford took McGillis and Haas back to their home and passed out shortly after their arrival, causing considerable angst among the villagers. No one was trained as a doctor, and Ford needed that kind of attention.

But he was a police officer, and he knew the routine. If he was taken to the hospital with a bullet wound, there would be a police investigation, and he would be found — and if he was found, the boy would be found, too.

That was a pretty persuasive argument for the Amish folks, who decided to give him shelter — and hoped he would recover. They had no idea what they would do if he died.

So he stayed with the Amish and tried to blend in. He wore their clothes. He worked on their farms. He helped them raise houses and barns.

(And he and McGillis were falling in love. In defiance of social codes of conduct.)

Even so, his adversaries from Philadelphia managed to find him. It wasn't easy, considering that the Amish had no phones and literally thousands of people in that vicinity had the same surname as the boy and his mother. But they found him, and that led to a final showdown.

If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil the ending for you. I'll just get back to Ebert's observation about being "inside this story." I had seen the movie before I read Ebert's piece, and I knew exactly what he meant when I read that. Well, I thought I did.

At the time, I thought he was speaking of the camera angles — which really do make a viewer feel like he/she is inside the story. Then, I thought perhaps it was a reference to Maurice Jarre's Oscar–nominated score, which did a brilliant job of summarizing the two ways of life.

(I'm a fan of Jarre's work, anyway. Even if I didn't particularly care for the movie, I always liked his music.)

But Ebert went on to speak of how all the elements of the movie worked so well together that they drew the viewer into the story. And that, ultimately, was my sensation. The camera angles, the score, the performances, the Oscar–winning screenplay and film editing, they all worked together to make an excellent movie.