Eight Witnesses (1950)

UK, WG / 62 minutes / bw / Bavaria Filmkunst, Princess, Vitapix Dir: Lawerence Huntington (i.e., Lawrence Huntington) Pr: Gene Martel Scr: Halsted Welles Cine: Bruno Stephan Cast: Peggy Ann Garner, Dennis Price, Dr. Charles Jacquemar, Wolfgang Buettner, Christian Dorn, Ernst Fritz Fuerbringer, Gerhard Kittler, Auguste Hansen-Kleinmichel, Heinz Beck.

Brilliant scientist Ernst Hildebrund (Jacquemar) escapes from behind the Iron Curtain into Austria, where he heads for Vienna to make contact with the British Military Intelligence agent who’s been wooing him toward defection, Allan Peters (Price). His escape, as he leaps from a train at a border crossing and is chased through swirling mists by armed guards intent on shooting him down like a dog, is something of a pièce de résistance, especially in the context of a postwar cheapie like this.

After Hildebrund phones Allan from a callbox and is told to wait where he his, the frightened scientist is spooked by a couple of sinister-seeming strangers and instead heads to the library for the blind where his daughter Helen (Garner) is a librarian. Allan, who has been romancing her just in case of such an eventuality, heads there too. Of course, the bad guys have likewise guessed Hildebrund might make contact with his daughter, and have planted one of their number (Buettner) there as a supposedly blind reader. When Hildebrund arrives, terrified by now of everyone, he hides an envelope containing his secret formula in a book on the cart pushed around by library staffer Carl (Dorn), who happens to be an undercover operative working with Allan. The fake blind man kills Hildebrund but, unable to find the document, heads back to his superior (Kittler), who’s operating out of a fully functional bakery.

Eight Witnesses - the 8 witnesses ... plus oneEight witnesses . . . plus one!

Allan arrives—too late!—and investigates, interviewing the eight genuinely blind readers who shared a table with the faker. Of course, being blind, they can’t tell him much, although one of their number is more helpful:

. . . his coat had a strong smell of cigar smoke. And there was something else . . . It never sounded as if he were reading . . . His hands were moving either too fast or too slow, and sometimes they didn’t move at all.

It’s an interesting piece of observation: of course a blind person would be able to hear the sound of someone’s fingers on the Braille page and know if they were reading or not. The moment serves as compensation for a trivial plotting error shortly before, when one of the blind witnesses announces that the victim was “Miss Hildebrund’s father” despite having zero means of knowing this.

Helen, believing Allan has been counterfeiting amour just to keep tabs on her dad, is initially absolutely implacable—”This whole thing is nothing but a cloak-and-dagger act to you!”—but after about thirty seconds, possibly even more, she relents. They go and have a coffee together and Allan pours out the secret passions of his heart—at least, as much as any tight-lipped Brit portrayed by Dennis Price could be expected to.

The killer’s boss berates the killer as a nincompoop for having failed to find the envelope. Deducing (wrongly) that Hildebrund must have given it to Helen, they go to her apartment and threaten to torture the information from her. Luckily Allan arrives, hoping she can get him a pass into the library (it has shut for the night) so he can search there. The bad guys’ threats indicate, of course, that they’re as baffled as Allan about the location of the envelope.

Back at the library, after wasting time hypothesizing that Hildebrund could have hidden the envelope in the reading room (an obviously dumb guess, since the killer would have seen him do it), Allan and Helen realize what must have happened. Down into the basement they go, into the library’s shadowy stacks . . . followed by the killer and his boss. This is the second of the movie’s two pièces de résistance: a very neatly choreographed sequence as the bad guys stalk Allan, who soon turns the tables and starts stalking them . . .

The central tale is framed by two sequences, together comprising six or seven minutes, set in some unspecified US Intelligence unit where a weary mathematician labors to reproduce Hildebrund’s formula. We have to suspect that these two segments were a later addition of some kind, perhaps an attempt to make the movie more friendly to US audiences? Their participants are uncredited, and their scripting seems enormously knuckleheaded. In the movie proper, we never do learn what Hildebrund’s research concerned—which is fine: the secreted envelope is just a MacGuffin—but we assume it must be in physics or chemistry. Here in the frame, though, it’s indicated that it involves higher mathematics and, just to prove it, the weary scientist spouts some: “7.2 to the 4th power.” That’s higher mathematics?

Most sources give the movie’s release date as 1954 and state that it was a TVM, but a persistent few indicate that it was a UK theatrical release in 1950. Finding out for certain is obviously fraught with difficulty for a movie of this obscurity. (The British Film Institute online catalogue is of no help here. It seems to have copied the data on the movie inaccurately from the IMDB.) It seems plausible to suggest that the movie was indeed made in 1950, with the 1954 copyright line and the clumsy framing sequences being added by Princess Pictures Inc. for US television purposes.

Even if we ignore the frames, this is a slight offering. Price walks through his part adequately enough except during his romantic dialogues with Helen, which have—as fans of Round the Horne will recognize—a touch of the Charles and Fiona about them. Garner seems similarly unenlivened. She was a well known child star—she won a Juvenile Oscar mainly for her depiction of Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)—who failed to make the transition to adult roles, her career following the usual downward trajectory. She died of cancer aged just 52.

This movie has nothing to do with the Eight Witnesses of Mormon tradition.


On Amazon.com: Eight Witnesses

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