American cop movies in the 1980s had grown so popular and so numerous that they began to require an additional hook to get people interested. 1985’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, has one of the best: when a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas in an early role) sees a murder in a Philladelphia train station bathroom, a cop (Ford) has to hide out in an Amish community in order to protect him from the killers.
“Harrison Ford goes Amish” is what they in the business refer to as a “high concept” premise for a motion picture, but as directed by Peter Weir, Witness never feels like a cheap gimmicky thriller. Instead, Weir is wise enough to focus the story on the Amish themselves, allowing them to exist as real people instead of the shallow stereotypes that they’re often popularly depicted as. Witness came out in the thick of Hollywood’s obsession with flashy cop thrillers and action-comedies like the Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon movies, but it feels much more akin to the quiet simplicity of John Ford or High Noon than anything that came out in the 80s.
It’s easy to imagine a version of Witness that opens on a chase scene, the standard introductory bang that gives us our first look at the hero in action. But the opening scenes of Witness take place within the Amish community where most of the film will be set, without a drug dealer or clanging synth riff in sight. Rachel Lapp, the Amish widow played by McGillis, attends her late husband’s funeral, a bit of narrative economy that introduces us to all the Amish characters and conveniently lets us in on a key point that will pay dividends later: Rachel is single.
The screenplay for Witness by Earl W Wallace and William Kelley has been taught in film schools for its adherence to traditional structure. Some have criticized the film for being too rigid or airless in that structure but for me anyway it’s a pleasant throwback to the studio era, when scripts were almost like highly polished, modular units that could be adjusted and reworked to fit new stars or new settings as the need arose. As with many of those films, the real value of Witness isn’t in its narrative structure but in the flourishes and variations that are placed within that structure, the little pieces of time that make a movie memorable even if all the plot points are telegraphed in advance. Watch the portion of the film where John Book (Ford, and a great character name that kind of makes you wish we could have seen more of his adventures in a sequel or two) is enlisted by Rachel’s father-in-law Eli to help with their farm’s daily chores while he’s hiding out from the bad guys: there’s a great scene in which Book makes an off-color joke while milking a cow, and Eli takes a moment to process it, then claps him on the back and laughs heartily. It’s an amusing exchange on its own but it also seems to serve the purpose of illustrating that the Amish characters in the film are not the humorless, dour puritans they might appear to be to outsiders.
Then, of course, there’s possibly the most memorable scene in Witness, with the exception of a certain run-in between Book and an annoying tourist: Book and Rachel alone in Book’s car, hidden away in a barn late at night. Book finally gets the engine running and the radio switches automatically on, leading to an impromptu serenade courtesy of a Sam Cooke soundalike and “Wonderful World.”
Talk about the humane, quiet storytelling of Witness and its depiction of the Amish and you run the risk of losing an important point: this film also works magnificently as a thriller. The suspense begins early when young Samuel Lapp becomes the titular witness to the underworld slaying of a cop inside a men’s room. He sees it all unfold from inside a stall and then narrowly escapes the killers after getting a good look at the face of one of them (Danny Glover, channeling Lee Van Cleef in High Noon). It’s easy to compare a sequence like this, with its emphasis on watching a murder and being endangered as a result, to Hitchcock, and Weir shows an unfussy but effective approach to suspense that will come in handy again in the film’s climax, when the killers finally track Book to the Amish community he’d been hiding in loaded for bear.
It’s in this protracted action sequence that the influence of High Noon on Witness becomes most prominent. But in a clever twist on the usual western showdown, Book doesn’t have his revolver, so he has to come up with creative ways to dispatch the three bad guys hunting him down using materials more readily at hand -- in another Hitchcockian touch of finding the sinister in the mundane, you may never look at a corn silo the same way again after you see this movie.
Witness was a sizable hit upon its release and remains pretty fondly remembered, as any movie with Harrison Ford in full Amish dress punching an obnoxious tourist in the face would almost have to be. But watching it again recently I was so blown away by how it elevates itself above the usual cable rerun fare in such subtle ways. Ford received his only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role in the film, and it does nicely showcase his dramatic range (and some of his trademark angry pointing), but I was even more impressed by McGillis and Haas. It all comes together as a testament to the power of Howard Hawks’s fabled “three good scenes, no bad scenes” and seems like even more of a bygone example of studio craft now than it did when it came out -- the “they don’t make ‘em like that any more” effect compounded exponentially by the ensuing nearly four decades since its release.