Hostile Witness: Not Agatha Christie

DATELINE: Good Intentions Not Well Done

ray Milland, director and star.

Alas, Oscar winner Ray Milland loved movies and he directed several feature films and a dozen TV anthology episodes during the 1950s and 1960s. He was not box-office, except as a character actor—and movies had changed.

So, the Welsh actor returned to England to film his final director effort in 1968 in which he also starred as a barrister whose mental breakdown makes him a prime murder suspect.  It’s a second-rate court-room murder mystery on the lines of Agatha Christie, called Hostile Witness.

Milland is juicy with those eyes and old Hollywood’s courtly gestures. However, the material (a Broadway murder mystery, no less) lets him down. All the actors are superior Brits like Felix Aylmer as the court justice.  Sylvia Syms plays a surprisingly modern career woman working in Milland’s office, removed when Milland arrogantly decides to defend himself in court.

The barrister cracks when his daughter is killed by a hit-and-run driver. It elicits little sympathy from fellow lawyers whom he regularly embarrassed in his court-room victories. His professional colleagues let him stew in his own juices.

The film means to be another Witness for the Prosecution, but even with intelligent actors and directors, they cannot overcome a wild script that uses color-blindness as a red herring and a frame-up as the plot devices.

It just simply isn’t clever enough than to be an overblown film that would soon become a staple of TV made for movies in 1968. It might have made a passable anthology court drama. Within a few years, he gave up all pretense of being a leading man, removed his toupee, and played it as an old reprobate usually.

As it is, with nicely appointed sets, the main action is the second-half in the courtroom with testimony and outrageous and unlikely court etiquette.

We stuck with dapper and aging Ray Milland to see what he tried to do with no budget, no script, and relying on his talents. As he said in an interview, “The problem with being a director is that you also have to eat.” We admire his attempt to make movies no matter what.