Simon Crawford is a highly successful barrister whose world comes crashing down when his daughter Joanne is killed in a hit-and-run accident. He suffers a nervous breakdown when he is unable to find out who was responsible and spends months in a clinic. He is eventually declared fit to return to work, but shortly after is accused of murdering the man who may have killed his daughter. But did he do it? Is he going mad? Or has he been set up? Even some of his friends and colleagues aren’t so sure – in fact, neither is he.
The following review is offered for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at his unmissable Sweet Freedom blog.
“Today I accuse you of being hostile – not to the Crown, but to me.”
The murder victim was a judge, a neighbour and friend of Crawford’s but circumstantial evidence provides a motive in the form of a registered letter naming the judge as the driver of the car that killed Joanne. Crawford says he is being framed, that the letter was planted in his house, but who would want to do that? Of late he had been extremely intemperate and especially hard on Sheila Larkin, a junior barrister in his chambers. Is it possible that Crawford was driven over the edge by the information in the letter but has since blanked out all memory of what he did? Crawford says he was attacked and knocked out during the time at which the crime was committed and his keys, which included a spare for the judge’s front door, stolen. Ultimately Crawford ends up defending himself in court after disagreeing over tactics with Sheila, who initially was representing him, believing that he has been set up by a man he prosecuted decades earlier. But is he right or is he just being paranoid?
If a lawyer asks the judge to treat their own witness as hostile, that means that the testimony being given is not what was anticipated from prior statements – but of course, the phrase is open to other, less strict meanings and Roffey does a good job of exploring these here. Indeed, there is a pleasing ambiguity about Crawford’s state of mind and Roffey is fairly smart in managing to do this without making us lose sympathy for the protagonist, though he comes close in a sequence in which the barrister stalks a poor woman when he briefly deludes himself that she is Joanne. The aim of course is to keep us off-balance, which works well so as to lead to an unlikely but none the less highly entertaining surprise at the end, with the revelation in court of a well-concealed villain. Although heavy on dialogue and low on action, Roffey’s novel is perfectly efficient and well put together, making a fairly complex story very accessible and entertaining. It also does a fair job of disguising that it is in fact a tie-in novelisation for the movie of the same name, based on his own screenplay, which in turn he had adapted from his own stage success.
Jack Roffey was a former courtroom clerk who turned to writing and, unsurprisingly specialised in courtroom dramas, mainly for TV and the cinema. Hostile Witness was one of his few excursions into stage drama and was produced first in London’s West End in November 1964 after trying out in the provinces, with Michael Denison taking the the lead. Dennison had starred in the same author’s long-running TV series, Boyd QC (Associated-Rediffusion for ITV, 1956-1964), which is credited as being the first legal drama series made for British TV. The show, after an 8-year run in which, amazingly, all 82 of the scripts were authored solely by Roffey, had just ended on ITV a few weeks before, so in a way Hostile Witness was designed as a sort of continuation. It transferred to Broadway in 1966, with Ray Milland in the lead (making his debut on the Great White way incidentally) under the direction of Reginald Denham. It had only a modest run (some 157 performances, between 14 February and 2 July 1966) before the star took it on a tour that eventually reached as far as Australia.
Ray Milland clearly got very attached to this project as he would go on to star and direct the film version made at Shepperton Studios in 1968, though it has to be said, the proceedings are all but stolen by Geoffrey Lumsden, who recreates his performance from both the West End and Broadway productions as Major Hugh Maitland, a dog-loving old duffer and a friend and neighbour of Crawford. He tries to protect Crawford but just keeps making matters worse – but is there more to him than meets the eye? This proved to be Milland’s last movie as a leading man and is a reasonable exit for him. He is clearly far too old for the part (he is a good 15 years older than the character as described in the novel), which also undermines any attempts at a romance with Sheila, which is a shame because it would have helped the story quite a bit. Crawford is mean to her throughout (Milland is always very good when he is bellowing), which makes us question his possible guilt, but the hint of romance is meant to act as a counter-balance. Here this wouldn’t really work as he is clearly some 30 years older that Syms – equally, while she is as always very good in the role, she is in fact too mature to play the character as written. She is meant to be a junior member of chambers, slightly in awe and in love with the infuriating and arrogant Crawford. But Syms, compared with the character as described in the novel, is about 10 years too old for the part. Had the role been re-written slightly to make her a more seasoned barrister and more of an equal to Crawford, it would have worked much better.
As with his four previous movies as a director, Milland handles the proceedings in an efficient if somewhat functional style, but this is a plot-driven film so ultimately anything too fancy would have been a bit of a distraction. Still, from a visual standpoint one would have liked it if the film were presented a little less plainly and with more of an emphasis on what may be going on in Crawford’s mind maybe but equally, because you really are not meant to be too sure about his guilt, there are limitations to what could be done. And it is a limitation but it’s the price you pay for an old-fashioned whodunit, which is what this is – for good or ill. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thanks to Colin, wrangler of Riding the High Country, for lending me his copy of the film.
DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in Spain in a decent, no frills anamorphic edition which is what I have, this title is now also available in the US as part of MGM’s ‘Made on Demand’ classics range. Avoid the front cover if you can though – it’s a bit of a spoiler …
Hostile Witness (1968)
Director: Ray Milland
Producer: David E. Rose
Screenplay: Jack Roffey
Cinematography: Bernard Gribble
Art Direction: George Provis
Music: Wilfred Josephs
Cast: Ray Milland, Sylvia Syms, Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, Dulcie Bowman, Sandra Fehr, Geoffrey Lumsden
This review is submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in ‘legal’ the category: