Hostile Witness (1968)

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Can a brilliant lawyer suppress his arrogance long enough to save his own skin?
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UK / 99 minutes / color / Caralan–Dador, UA Dir: Ray Milland Pr: David E. Rose Scr: Jack Roffey Story: Hostile Witness (1965 play) by Jack Roffey Cine: Gerald Gibbs Cast: Ray Milland, Sylvia Syms, Raymond Huntley, Felix Aylmer, Geoffrey Lumsden, Ewan Roberts, Julian Holloway, Norman Barrs, Richard Hurndall, Dulcie Bowman, Ballard Berkeley, Harold Berens, Percy Marmont, Edward Waddy, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Sandra Fehr.

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Devastated when his wife was killed during the Blitz, lawyer Simon Crawford (Milland) and his infant daughter Joanna were taken in by Justice Matthew Gregory (Marmont) and his wife Phyllis (Bowman). Years later, Crawford is a prominent QC and Joanna (Fehr) has grown up to become a lovely young woman.

One evening Crawford is visiting Lady Phyllis to toast her birthday when there’s a screech of brakes outside. Joanna has been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, and will soon die in the hospital. As you’d expect, Crawford says in front of witnesses that he’ll kill the driver if ever he finds him.

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Crawford (Ray Milland) exchanges banter with daughter Joanna (Sandra Fehr).

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Lady Gregory (Dulcie Bowman) looks down at the scene of the accident.

Spool forward a few weeks. The police have got nowhere in finding the driver—all that the witnesses could report was that he was an elderly man in a large black car—and neither have the private detectives whom Crawford has employed. When the latest of these, Rosen (Berens), accidentally knocks a photo of Joanna to the floor, Crawford attacks him, and has to be dragged off by his senior clerk, Charles Milburn (Barrs), his junior counsel, Sheila Larkin (Syms) and his junior clerk, Percy (Holloway).

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Crawford (Ray Milland) is devastated by the death of Joanna.

Diagnosed with a complete nervous breakdown, Crawford spends some weeks or months in an asylum, with Sheila taking care of the chamber and his apartment. On return he’s briefly grateful to her for this, then starts treating her like pond scum as usual.

Late one night, Crawford is clubbed down in the street while walking home to his cottage in chichi Gordon Mews. He’s discovered by his dotty old neighbor, Major Hugh Beresford Maitland (Lumsden), who insists he sleep in Maitland’s home for the night to be sure he’s properly recovered from his concussion. At about the same time, unknown to anyone else, someone is murdering Justice Gregory, who lives next door to Crawford in the mews.

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Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms), Crawford’s loyal but resentful junior counsel.

There’s a tremendous amount of circumstantial evidence linking Crawford to the crime, and Superintendent Eley (Hurndall) duly arrests him.

Crawford has instructed his solicitor, Hamish Gillespie (Roberts), that he wants Sheila Larkin to represent him in court, and in the event she does a devastating job for him, showing how the circumstantial evidence points more to an attempt to frame her client than to her client’s guilt. However, when she contradicts him on something, like an idiot he dismisses her services, choosing thereafter to defend himself.

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Superintendent Eley (Richard Hurndall) calls to interrogate Crawford.

As Sheila earlier observed to Gillespie, who’d asked her what she thought of her employer,

“I think he’s intolerant and a bully. He has an immense conceit and because of it he’s supremely self-sufficient. I think he’s ambitious and, as far as his ambition’s concerned, quite ruthless.”

The most damaging piece of circumstantial evidence is a registered letter that Crawford received the day of the murder from one of the private detectives he’d hired, James Armitage, saying that he’d discovered that Justice Gregory was the driver who killed Joanna. But Crawford has no memory of ever hiring a PI called Armitage and, although he recalls receiving the letter, when he saw it it was just a blank sheet of paper. Cleverly, Milland indicates no doubt as to his memory in speech but we can see from his slight facial movements that he does have a trace of uncertainty. Could his breakdown have played havoc with his mental abilities, including his memory? Is it just possible that he did murder Justice Gregory?

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Gillespie (Ewan Roberts) tries to talk sense into his client (Ray Milland).

The bulk of the movie is taken up with the courtroom drama, which ends in traditional manner with the unmasking of the murderer; the solution is of Agatha Christie-like twistiness, as is, in a sense, the movie as a whole — think of her play Witness for the Prosecution (1953), memorably filmed by Billy Wilder in 1957. Particularly after Crawford’s decision to defend himself, Justice Osborne (Aylmer)—of whom Lady Phyllis earlier said, “He could have been so brilliant if he hadn’t let his brains go to his head”—allows him to play fast and loose with standard court protocols. In fact, while the plot of the movie—and presumably of its source play—is of Paul Halter-like implausibility (surely there’d be some record of the payments to Armitage? would the cops go to court without having traced him? etc.), that’s as nothing to the implausibility of the proceedings in court. This aspect of the movie would seem merely risible were it not that we have Aylmer as the judge and Huntley as the prosecuting attorney, John Naylor. These two played similar roles in so many UK movies of the era that their mere presence seems to give the courtroom scenes some measure of much-needed credibility.

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Raymond Huntley as prosecutor John Naylor.

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Felix Aylmer as Justice Osborne.

It’s customary when talking of movies whose origins were in a stage production to observe that the staginess persists into the screenplay: there are static scenes, too much declamation, etc. Roffey, basing the script for Hostile Witness on his own play, has largely avoided these traps; even though the scenes set in the courtroom are of necessity protracted, they don’t feel as if they are, because director Milland and cinematographer Gibbs avoid using the same shots over and over, and thereby create a sort of subliminal illusion that the location is constantly changing—we’re never allowed to tire of a single viewpoint.

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Crawford’s clerk, Charles Milburn (Norman Barrs), delivers some vital evidence from the witness box.

And yet there is some staginess about the movie. Milland starred in the play’s 1966 Broadway production, dir Reginald Denham, and he seems to remember his stage role a little too well. As opposed to displaying his usual screen urbanity, he speaks many of his lines with just a little too much emphasis, a little too much clarity. Some of the other cast members—notably Syms and Roberts—seem to catch the bad habit from him. The result is that the movie has a certain shrillness that can become wearing after a while.

This was the fifth and by some years the last of the movies Milland directed. (He also did some TV direction.) At its end we’re left with one very pertinent question: Just who did run over Joanna?

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7 thoughts on “Hostile Witness (1968)

    • Ha! I see I commented at your linked post a year and a bit ago, although I’ve no recollection of so doing. Interesting that in one instance we’ve chosen almost adjacent frames for a screengrab.

      • Swing the seeds old chum – that probably points to the fact that visual it tends to be a bit on the plain side, lets be honest – good solid entertainment though, through and through … 🙂

  1. Well, I love Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and have seen it more than once on the stage. But I am also intrigued by the Milland doube-dip and appreciate this fantastic review!

    • If you like Witness you’d very probably enjoy this one too — it has a similar feel, although it’s not nearly so hefty.

      I watched the 1982 remake of Witness a couple of days ago, by the way, and was very pleasantly surprised by it.

  2. This is fabulous: “He could have been so brilliant if he hadn’t let his brains go to his head.”

    I always like Ray Milland, no matter what role he plays; however, I’ve only seen one of his films as director (Panic in Year Zero!) years ago, and I’m still not sure if I liked it. Since I’m a big fan of Witness/Prosecution, I’ll give this one a go. Thanks for the introduction!

    • If you like WftP, I’m pretty certain you’d like this one too. It has its flaws, but it holds together well enough and the denouement really does surprise (and is a bit more plausible than WftP’s!).

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