|"If we'd made love last night I'd have to stay. Or you'd have to leave."|
|Time: 112 mins.|
Won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Original Screenplay. Nominations for Best Actor (Ford), Art Direction, Cinematography, Director, Score and Best Picture.
It had been a long time since I saw this movie. Probably not all the way through for at least 10 years, maybe since it was in the theater 16 years ago. What I remember are the big moments, the intensity of emotions. I thought it was more complicated and intriguing than it turned out to be in a recent viewing. It's still a very powerful film, but just not for the reasons I thought. At that point in my life, I pretty much went to see Harrison Ford in whatever it was he made. For the most part, he's had a blessed career making films that are extremely entertaining with few out-and-out stinkers. WITNESS was a big step in a completely new direction for him, one that didn't entail special effects or space travel. He has one of the most expressive faces in the business, which is put to poignant use here in this quiet romantic thriller. It's the acting, more than the plot twists, which are fairly obvious, that glues your eyes to the screen. Ford, as the Philadelphia cop, and McGillis as the young Amish widow, emit so much sexual tension you could cut it with a knife. It is their path to fulfilling a passion with no future that is the core of this film...and what keeps me coming back for more.
The film opens in Amish country at a funeral. Rachel (McGillis) is a young woman now forced to raise her 8-year-old son Samuel (Haas) alone. They leaves the farm to visit her sister and try to get over their grief. While in the train station, Samuel, who's enjoying his first foray into modern society, gets more than he bargained for. He becomes an unwitting witness to a brutal murder of an undercover cop in the mens' room. Rachel wants nothing to do with this situation, but the cop in charge, John Book (Ford), refuses to let then leave until they at least try to identify the killer. What Book discovers is that this murder was far from random and reaches the highest levels of the department. In most films, that would be giving something away, but here it's not exactly a surprise because this isn't a mystery. John takes it upon himself to protect this family, since they are completely helpless. Injured by one of the murderers, played by Danny Glover, he manages to spirit them back to their farm. Rachel's father-in-law Eli (Rubes) is highly displeased to see her take this outsider into her home. However, she has no choice. He saved their lives, it's her duty to return the favor.
It's no surprise that the community wants nothing to do with this policeman. His presence will only bring trouble. Rachel refuses to hear their arguments. Until he is well, they will just have to deal with the rumors and innuendo. If he dies, they'll have to figure out a way to dispose of his body. Besides, how often does an Amish woman get to bath a man as hot as Harrison Ford. She may be repressed, but she ain't dead. As she nurses him back to health, a bond begins to grow between them. The attraction is mutual, however, they both now it could never work out in the end. John attempts to fit in as best he can, but it's clear to the community, as well as Rachel, that the sooner he leaves the better off they'll be. He's covered their tracks as best he can, but the men who are after them aren't going to quit looking until they're all dead. They have far too much to lose. On his last night, they are unable to quell their passion for one another. They know it can never be, so they make sure it will be an evening to remember. As will be the following morning, when the 3 men on their trail finally make the connection and come calling, shotguns blazing. The final confrontation, evens the odds and brings the case to justice.
Instead of the same old formulaic thriller, Weir and company deliver a film of poetic style and brutal emotions, marrying the Amish simplicity with the urban chaos. It's no wonder Ford and McGillis are instantly attracted to one another. Neither has ever met anyone of the opposite sex quite like them. Ford is sensitive, intelligent, slightly arrogant and powerful. McGillis is a natural beauty, strong, smart and innocent. To be sure, they don't grow 'em like her in the big city. Here's a woman in touch with her sexuality who has no need to flaunt it. When she catches him watching her bath, the look she gives him is full of yearning without being slutty or pathetic. Not an east thing to pull off. He, of course, looks like every other dumfounded male when breasts are being exposed, though he has the class to eventually look away and not take advantage of the situation. Their relationship has many layers and you can almost imagine that if they tried they might actually be able to make it work.
The murder and subsequent manhunt are merely tools to bring these two divergent worlds together, which is why the film exposes the killers in the first act. Besides, it's not the murder that's important, it's how far the killers are willing to go to keep their actions a secret that creates the tension. What do they know and how much time do our heroes have before their location is no longer safe. The story brings these elements in, in just the right increments, keeping the potential for danger right under the surface. We know that John Book is a good cop, but so are his opponents and the outcome is never clear. It will not be a happy ending for the lovers, but how they come to part is anybody's guess. What rounds out this film and makes it more than a traditional romance are the performances by the young Lukas Haas and the elderly Jan Rubes. Both bring gravity to the situation, though by very different means. Haas gives a brilliantly understated turn as a boy who remains untouched by the violence thrust into his quiet world. Rubes is the fatherly voice of reason, who tries to protect what's left of his family from the pain of the outside world.
The music and cinematography work beautifully to convey all the emotions of these characters. The light in certain scenes is pure magic. Weir weaves a timeless tale of forbidden passion and unrelenting sacrifice. This is definitely one of Ford's more well-rounded performances. Worthy of Oscar attention, certainly of all his roles, though probably not if one considers the competition. McGillis does a first-rate job, full of promise of things to come. Unfortunately, she never found a role as good as this again. TOP GUN could only be considered a step down on the acting scale. Glover's role is small and only worth mentioning because he became a star. Otherwise, there's nothing standout about it. He's a bad guy, who's corrupt and evil. He gets the job done. This is certainly one of Weir's better works. If you're looking for a film both male and female can enjoy, this engaging thriller is one to check out. It is a timeless piece of cinema, just as touching and entertaining today as it was long ago. Certainly not perfect, but definitely worth the time.