Witness (1985): A Masterpiece of a Scene

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A masterpiece is rare.

Witness is a masterpiece. It’s a fractal: every part of it replicating the whole, endless repetition – microscopic, telescopic – no matter how close or how far you get – you are still confronted with the same power and emotional truth. It exists in honesty on every level: the crime thriller level, the romance level, the city vs. country level, the rivalry between men level, the atmospheric level (wheat waving, dusk, men hanging over the barn being built) … and also the small moment-to-moment level. Example: John Book picking up Samuel so that he can see the lineup in the police station – and Book saying, “Big guy!” commenting on his weight. Now: John Book is a big strong HUNK. Samuel is 7 years old. There is no way that picking him up taxes John Book in any way. But it is his way of making Samuel first of all feel comfortable, lightening the mood, but also, subtextually, letting him know: “You are a big enough boy to handle this situation. You’re going to be okay.” Harrison Ford plays all of that in that one, “Ooph, you’re a big guy!” moment, but the film is full of moments like that! It exists in the language (“He is going back to his world where he belongs. He knows it …. and you know it, too.”) and it exists in the silences (the phenomenal last sequence on the porch … which had been originally written to be full of words and declarations, Book stating, ‘I will never love a woman like I’ve loved you …” and Rachel Lapp moaning, “I love you more than any woman has loved any man …” etc. ad nauseum exeunt. They filmed it a couple of times, and then realized: Nope. You know what? Let’s not say a damn word. And so they don’t.

You could write a novel about what goes on between those two characters in that silent sequence.)

The film is full of indelible moments. The Amish men appearing at the top of the field when Samuel rings the bell for help. The car in the dark barn, lantern gleaming from within. The men at work raising the barn (and the music underneath that scene – go, Maurice Jarre – my post about Jarre here). Rachel sponging herself off. That scene could have been exploitive or gratuitous or soft-core Red Shoe Diaries erotica (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But the way they play it is freakin’ ADULT. Her almost challenging gaze. His shame-faced looking away, but then he has to look back. You can feel their hearts beating, you can feel the desire heating up the room. Her nudity is the LEAST erotic thing about that scene.

Let’s look at how delicately things are set up in this film, so much so that you don’t notice them. John Book has recovered (somewhat) from his wound and Samuel Lapp takes him on a tour of the farm. He shows him the well. (“It goes … it makes … it goes …” so cute) He shows him the silo and tells him how it works. He shows him the trap door. All of this will become crucial in the final scenes, as John Book sneaks around, trying to evade the murderers. But what becomes clear, beautifully, in subsequent viewings – is that it is SAMUEL who showed Book the way. It is SAMUEL who, innocently, gave John Book the tools for survival in those crucial end moments. And so the title of the film takes on even more meaning, more depth. WITNESS. “What’s up there?” asks John Book. “Corn,” answers Samuel. Notice the grace and simplicity of how that information is imparted. You might not even notice it. A lesser film would have just had John Book figuring out how the silo worked while he was under the gun (which is how so many thrillers operate – they ARE their plots. That’s it.) … but in Witness we are introduced, via Samuel, to “the way things work”. He’s excited to show John Book around and to show him the well and also to show him how much he knows.

It isn’t until later that we realize what Samuel Lapp has done, in that innocent tour.

In all of the great scenes of the film, and all of the piercingly wonderful moments, it is the scene captured in the screenshot below that is my favorite. The scene is the linchpin of the Ebert-Siskel review (which you can see here (it makes me really miss Siskel).

The scene is a masterpiece.

I feel confident in saying so because I know it when I see it.


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Only a movie star can play a scene like that. And when I say “movie star” I mean people like John Wayne. Humphrey Bogart. John Garfield. Guys who could tell the whole story with no lines, guys who spent the first couple of days of filming cutting their parts down so they would have less and less to say. They knew that it was in action – and in the FACE … that the story would be told. And what Harrison Ford does in that particular scene with no language is a tour de force. Yes, he is aided by Maurice Jarre’s effective score, and by how it is filmed (to quote Siskel: “Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better”) – but when you get right down to it – it is the actor in the line of fire, it is the actor who has the job of making us believe … and he can either get it up (to mix a metaphor) or he can’t. Harrison Ford does.

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16 Responses to Witness (1985): A Masterpiece of a Scene

  1. I haven’t seen this in years but that moment is indeed a great one. (SPOILERS) The way Book gently lowers his hand over Samuel’s pointing finger, indicating that 1. He gets what Samuel is saying and 2. This safe-haven has now, immediately, become a very dangerous place and we have to get you the hell out of here. That’s what works for me so well. The immediate switch from safety to danger. (SPOILER END) It’s like what Roger Ebert wrote years ago about 2001. For first time viewers who didn’t know the story (unlike me going into it) the moment Kubrick shows HAL reading the astronauts lips was, according to Ebert, heartstopping. “Oh my god,” he thought, “HAL’s their enemy.”

    (SPOILERS AGAIN) That’s the feeling here: “Oh my god, the cops are the killers!” (END SPOILERS)

  2. red says:

    I love your spoiler warnings!!

    Yes – the gesture of him putting the kid’s finger down – and slowly nodding, like: Yes. Yes. Okay. He doesn’t doubt Samuel’s eye. He knows it’s true. And he also puts his arm around Samuel at that moment – which goes towards your “safety to danger” observation … Harrison Ford is so big, his arm could wrap around Samuel twice – but he knows – Okay. I can’t protect this child. We’re in the thick of it RIGHT NOW. And I think the very next scene is the one in the parking garage where Danny Glover appears, and all hell breaks loose. So it’s that urgent.

    Also – the way the scene starts – with the clatter of typewriters and the clank of handcuffs – the random conversation – a cacophony of noise – and then – suddenly – with no build-up – all sound stops – and the music comes in. It’s startling. For the rest of the scene, we have the music – no more incidental noise … and it’s just terrifying the way it’s done. But it takes its time too … slowly moving in on Samuel’s face, his glance over at Book – Book is on the phone, doesn’t notice what’s happening at first – Samuel looks back into the glass case – glances up at two men talking over him – we see them from his perspective – and now … finally … Book has taken note of what is going on with Samuel. A slow moving forward … with a riveted face …

    It’s just a brilliant sequence.

  3. I’ve got it on DVD at home so I’ll have to pop it in soon and even if I don’t watch the whole thing again at least watch that scene again to bring all the details back.

  4. Brendan says:

    I NEVER REALIZED THAT SAMUEL SHOWED HIM ALL THAT STUFF!

    Oh my gosh. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

    Great movie.

    And, not to be a negative nelly, but has an actress ever been better in a film compared to the rest of her work? I mean, you watch this movie and she is in a class by herself.

    Then you watch ‘The Accused’ and get a crash course in how NOT to play a lawyer.

  5. red says:

    I know! I just love Samuel Lapp. “Do you want to hold my kitten? I’ll show you how to give them a back rub …”

    And let’s not stay negative nelly, please, but I do think she is VERY hard to cast … and she was a victim of people not knowing what to do with her. Leading lady? Not quite. Tough-talkin’ dame? Not quite. Witness NAILED her appeal. Can’t picture anyone else in that part.

  6. Brendan says:

    Nay nay Nora?

    Nope nope Naranda?

    No no nanette?

    She’s SO GOOD in this. I don’t think many actresses would embrace the ‘plainness’ of that part, they’d focus on her rebellion, her sexuality…instead of the part of her that will never leave the Amish life, the part of her that is going to marry Gudonov after Book leaves.

    Amazing. I WANT TO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW!

  7. red says:

    bren – yeah, it’s a really really delicate line she walks in this film. You’re so so right!

    There’s one moment I love early on: Patti Lupone says to her, with a vague look of contempt, “So John says you’re Amish” and watch how Kelly McGillis lights up with a smile. “Yes!” It’s her life. She’s not smouldering with rebellion. She loves her culture and her way of life.

    But she never ever comes off as a prude.

    How on earth she pulls that off I will never know.

    AND … I looooove Gudonov in it, too. He too could have been played as a prudish horrible alternative to John Book – but he’s not. His first line in the film is at the funeral, and he’s talking with two friends in the doorway – and they’re reminsicing about a horse that had been sold to one of them and it only had one testicle, and Gudonov says, “Just remember. One ball is all it takes.” and the other two guys start laughing. LOVE it! So … he’s set up that you like him. You don’t love him like you love Harrison Ford … but … He actually will make a very good husband and father – and she’ll be okay.

    I’m not sure if John Book will be okay – but I get the sense that she will be okay.

    And let me just sing the praises of Ford for a second. He knows the murderers are coming – and he is in the barn with Samuel – running with him to the open door – he tells Samuel to run to the next farm … Samuel says, “But you don’t have your gun!” A look flashes across Ford’s face – a tiny AMISH boy reminding him of his gun – and he hugs Samuel – hard and fast – then pulls back and commands: “Run Samuel. RUN.”

    BAH. He’s just so good when he’s in action like that.

  8. jackie says:

    “you be careful out there among da english”.

  9. Zelda Rose says:

    It’s a great film for so many reasons. The ending is heartbreaking, but it is so right for the film.

  10. Belloc says:

    …and not to cause too much envy, but I live in Lancaster County…I am dah englisch!

  11. red says:

    Belloc – I love it out there!! I am very envious!

    I used to live in Germantown, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia and my boyfriend and I used to drive out on weekends to go to the Amish auctions which were always a total blast. The Amish boys would play a version of baseball in a field – not quite “our” baseball but close enough – and my boyfriend and I would sit in the dirt on the sidelines and watch, cheering them on. All the little Amish girls would hover on the sidelines, with lemonade for the boys … and you could feel all the little flirting going on, the teenage stuff … so fun!

    I still have a quilt I bought from one of those auctions … it was a young teenage girl’s first quilt – it was all I could afford – it’s a small blue square with black hearts on it … but I adore it.

  12. Kate P says:

    I can totally picture you in Germantown, Sheila. And yeah, “Witness” was a good, gripping movie.

    Strangely enough, one of my grade school classmates (he was a child actor) was a stand-in for Samuel. One of the car scenes, I think.

  13. Jaquandor says:

    Every time I watch this film I get a little more sad that this appears to be the last time Harrison Ford really used his talent to great effect. His performance is full of so many little details. I love how, after Eli interrupts his dancing with Rachel, he heartbreaking wipes the sweat of his forehead on his shoulder. I love how the first time he’s handed a glass of lemonade (by Rachel) he downs the whole thing in one gulp, but the next time (by Hochleitner) he takes a single small sip and hands it back. I love how at the end, after he’s beaten the bad guys and all the cops are there on the farm, he’s standing there, leaning exhaustedly against a police car, having a much needed cigarette, when we haven’t seen him smoke at all in the whole film to that point.

    I think that a good test for people I meet is to see if they give me a knowing smile when I tell them to “Be careful out among them English.”

  14. red says:

    Jaquandor: Great great observations! I love the moment of him leaning against the police car … and yes, the whole lemonade thing. The scene before John Book drinking the lemonade down in one gulp is the “date” scene with Rachel and Hochleitner sitting on the porch. They both hold glasses of lemonade and kind of take sips from them or hold them in their laps … so the contrast between that and Book’s voracious gulp is great!!

  15. Ann Marie says:

    Love, love, love this movie. I remember seeing it in the theater and being so pissed they didn’t get together, even though the ending is exactly as it should be. I love every character in this movie, really. Patti Lupone telling the police dude off. Great moment. The whole barn raising scene. Great. Also love the grandfather with Samuel and the dialog there about “gun of the hand” and “what we take into our hand we take into our heart” and “wherefore, be ye separate.” Thanks for sharing your observations.

  16. noir says:

    I had loved this film since I was little, it and Princess Bride, are the two films I can watch anywhere in the film. and if I catch them on tv I have to watch the whole thing.

    Has anyone noticed on tv there are scenes that aren’t in the DVD? Rachel making the sister’s boys clean before they can eat. LOL!