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.

Keanu & the Whole Truth

DATELINE:  Witness for the Defense

keanu

This courtroom thriller used to be the sort of movie that was marketed by saying, “No one will be seated during the final five minutes.”

You may be cynical and contend that this is bargain-basement Agatha Christie without a witness for the prosecution coming to the surprise.

Keanu Reeves is a young, hotshot attorney, sort of like Jose Baez who is presently defending Aaron Hernandez in Boston. For Ramsey (Keanu), his client is a 17-year old wealthy scion with a bad case of affluenza. He is being tried for killing his legal whiz father.

If you think the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, you would revise your opinion when you discover within the first few minutes of the film that Jim Belushi plays the murdered pop.

We thought that made it an easy call of justified homicide.

But, just hold on, all you armchair detectives. Keanu Reeves may be ruthless in his legal life, but he has a couple of roadblocks in his way: including his client (Gabriel Basso) as the clever suspect and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his second seat assistant lawyer. She’s hit with a bad case of ethics.

Keanu’s character contends that everyone lies in court—and apparently outside it.

Director Courtney Hunt acquits herself with a taut and tidy crime drama that has more red herrings than an Agatha Christie story. It’s actually written by Elia Kazan’s son (using a pseudonym to hide the truth).

We always enjoy watching the double-crosser being double-crossed. So will you.