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Personally, I like movies about trials and legal procedures, because I never seem able to guess what will happen next. As courtroom dramas go, Ray Milland's Hostile Witness shapes up as a more-than-acceptable thriller, even though it cannot touch its champion predecessor Witness for the Prosecution. That Agatha Christie / Billy Wilder classic has some truly brilliant twists as well as a steamy romantic subplot; wholly original characters that amuse even as the tension rises in the courtroom. Jack Roffey's adaption of his own stage play sticks to the basics: a lawyer accused of murder defends himself, but can't neutralize the disastrous testimony of an unreliable witness nor shake a motivation that seems entirely credible: revenge for the killing of his daughter. Hostile Witness is the fifth and last film directed by popular actor Ray Milland. He played the lead role on stage and does the same in the movie.
Successful barrister Simon Crawford (Milland) has a knack for successfully appealing to juries. As the story opens he secures freedom for a criminal that the entire court is convinced is guilty. The celebration is destroyed by a hit-and-run accident that takes the life of his grown daughter Joanna (Sandra Fehr). Crawford is so obsessed with vengeance that he has a nervous breakdown. When the police can't find the culprit he hires detectives to do the job. But the criminal is not caught. Although his associates recommend that Simon take it slow, he goes back to work. Then his neighbor and business partner Justice Gregory (Percy Marmont) is murdered. A baffling series of clues point to Simon, who had accused the man of possibly being the guilty driver. His own staff attorney Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Sims) becomes convinced that Simon is unbalanced, and leaves his defense in mid-trial. Simon takes over as his own representative but is stymied by an unreliable witness (Geoffrey Lumsden), whose attempts to bolster his alibi fall apart on the stand. Can Simon save his own skin? And is he really innocent?
Filmed in England, the fairly well directed Hostile Witness delivers the basic mystery items that courtroom movie fans like -- suspicious characters and worried defense counselors, all at the mercy of courtroom upsets that can occur at any moment. Ray Milland is a natural for this kind of show, coming off his unjustly un-heralded triumph in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Milland's genuinely suave manner was put to good use when playing a devious husband-conspirator.
The character in Hostile Witness isn't as interesting. Simon Crawford is not immediately likeable, even though he has the devotion of a staff awed by his command of the courtroom. For most of this story the man is angry and frustrated, and can barely keep his temper while dealing with the failing confidence of his friends and his terrible luck in the courtroom. And the script is seriously challenged in the humor department ... it's all played straighter than Perry Mason.
It's also one of those stories where the accused is either a madman, or a persecuted victim of a conspiracy. In a courtroom thriller we naturally suspect everyone. The fuddy-duddy witness for Simon offers alibis that keep falling apart on the stand, leaving big gaps in Simon's failing defense. And who among his friends and neighbors could have planted the incriminating evidence that shows up in his own house? Is this one of those stories that winds up with the accused suddenly realizing that he's truly guilty after all?
Milland also directed himself in Panic in Year Zero! It's probable that his performance was flattened a bit by having so much on his mind during shooting -- Simon Crawford isn't as quirky as most of Milland's other performances, and instead seems in a constant ill temper. The cast of pro English actors (Raymond Huntley Felix Aylmer, Ewan Roberts) does fine work, although nobody has a part that allows for a standout moment. Sylvia Sims is capable as the trusted associate who initially defends Simon, but then has a change of heart. The film's best scene comes when he praises her work as he had never done previously. The final bit of action reaches the expected high pitch as the truth finally comes out in open court. It's a pro job all around, but perhaps lacking a bit in spirit.
The movie was produced by Caralan, a short-lived English company initiated with a pair of imitation Hammer horrors, The Snake Woman and Doctor Blood's Coffin. The production makes do with flat-fill lighting on all of its sets, which robs it of needed atmosphere and looks more like a TV production. In 1968 Hostile Witness looked at least ten years out of date, and it wasn't energetically distributed.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD of Hostile Witness is an adequate but slightly suspicious widescreen encoding. Artifacts that appear on some shots with fast motion make us wonder if MGM or Fox hasn't taken a good flat-letterboxed transfer and blown it up to enhanced widescreen. The picture fills the widescreen frame but always looks a tad soft. Colors are not affected; most viewers will not be disappointed with the presentation.
The disc comes with no extras. The cover art -- taken from the film's original poster -- shows absolutely no understanding of the kind of movie this is. One of the images in the photo collage is a dead giveaway spoiler. I've blurred it in my product image above, just because it feels right to do so. I'm happy that I didn't study the box art until I'd already seen the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hostile Witness rates:
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