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Retro Review 1981: Eyewitness

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eyewitness (Original Release Date: 13 February 1981)

Among the movies I’ve watched so far for the column, Eyewitness is the one most obviously of its era.  Where something like The Incredible Shrinking Woman might stake its claim to the early eighties based wholly on eccentricities, Eyewitness nabs an adjacent plot with an endearing effortlessness.  That couch you remember from your aunt’s trailer with the heavy wooden arm rests and the burlap-y plaid upholstery is there, as are the hard angles on cars, the idea of home video as a novelty, the pale-red-paint look of movie blood, and, perhaps most importantly, a nearness to the Vietnam War that makes coping with it seem more a given than some form of filmmaker fetishism.

The Vietnam War connection is rolled out bit by bit throughout Eyewitness’s first half, and I found myself wondering if audiences of the time would have been quicker to pick up on it than I was.  Much of the plot is rolled out bit by bit.  Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich, fresh off their Breaking Away collaboration, don’t rush to explain anything to the viewer.  We learn at the movie’s leisure that one character was a decorated war hero, one was charged for cowardice, and that their Vietnamese boss was a double agent and profiteer during the war.  We learn some other characters are involved in smuggling Jews out of Russia, but not to what extent they are involved.  We also learn over time that all of these seemingly divergent threads are laced together.

The hero, Daryll Deever, is played by William Hurt, and the coward, Aldo Mercer, by James Woods.  The two were war buddies who ended up janitors for the business owned by Mr. Long, the abovementioned double agent and profiteer.  We come in just after Mercer has been fired for insulting Mr. Long.  Mercer talks big about Mr. Long getting his, and Mr. Long ends up dead shortly thereafter.  Deever suspects Mercer, as do the investigators (one of whom is played by Morgan Freeman).  Adding to everyone’s suspicions is Mercer’s suddenand inexplicable wealth.  There’s adearth of evidence, though, and nothing conclusive to pin the killing on Mercer.  We’re left wondering if he’s a murderer or a first-class schmuck at this point, and we’re made to continue wondering for much of the movie.

Enter Sigourney Weaver’s Tony Sokolow, a reporter whose parents are wealthy Russian immigrants and whose lover, played by Christopher Plummer, is similarly wealthy, and who is funding, along with Weaver’s parents, the Jew smuggling ring.  Well, he’s doing at least that.  He’s also maybe having an affair, and is maybe involved in something infinitely more nefarious. Eyewitness is in no hurry to reveal anything more.

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Deever/Mercer storyline.  It turns out that Deever has a massive crush on Sokolow.  He has been watching, recording, and re-watching her broadcasts for the last two years.  It would come across as stalkerish if Hurt didn’t play his role with just the right note of doofus charm.  (Hurt excels at this, and will be hitting almost the same note later in the year with Body Heat.)  When Sokolow arrives on the murder scene, you can almost read the hatching of Deever’s half-baked plan on his face.  He approaches her -- cameras rolling all the while --asks her out on a date in what might be the most charmingly awkward come-on I’ve ever seen committed to film, then allows her to believe he knows more than he knows to leverage a date out of her.

Despite his having concocted this plan, he’s either too dimwitted or too optimistic to think that their subsequent romance might have more to do with her wanting to extract a story out of him thanwith genuine interest on her part.  It takes other people to plant this seed, and even then, he is resistant to the idea.  (I mean, really, who would choose William Hurt over Christopher Plummer?  I’ll tell you who wouldn’t: Ol’ Thurston McQ.  Christoper Plummer’s a man-sized bottle of Concentrated Canadian Charisma.  Where was I?  Ah, the review.  That’s right.)  Yates’s touch is deft enough to make Deever’s resistance plausible, and to keep us guessing about Sokolow’s motives.

We’re kept guessing about a lot of things, but never in a way that is too frustrating.  Atleast half the movie’s characters aren’t very bright, and we’re held back with them as they try and figure things out.  Somehow, this isn’t too big a bother.  Again, I feel Yates is to be credited for this.  It’s shot competently enough that I never doubted the pieces would fall into their appropriate places,and the movie’s second half is filled with enough action to keep the leisurely pace at which plot revelations are made from feeling too labored.  If there is a drawback to this movie, however, it is its competence.  Despite a cast full of interesting characters (fairly well acted across the board,I should add) and a few inspired plot turns, it isn’t the sort of movie you’ll be mulling over or returning to.  This is the danger of a movie well-executed on every front: nothing about it stands out.

Final Word: Recommended?  Sure. There are worse ways to spend 100 minutes of your time.

Availability: Used copies available on VHS and DVD.  No longer in print.  I found my copy in a LaserDisc bargain bin.

Standout Scene: The weirdest thing about the movie, perhaps, is that Deever is set up to besome kind of animal whisperer.  He claims to have an extraordinarily calming effect on all animals, and to be able to make them do as he wishes.  We only ever see it done with horses and dogs, but it’s an important part of the movie.  It’s almost like some kind of superpower.  Both he and the viewer know something is up when his dog attacks him, then.  (What’s up: the dog has been poisoned.)  The attack is pretty brutal, and its consequences are jarring.  In another scene, Hurt corrals some horses and uses them to complicate a gunman’s shot.  It’s something you might think you’d only ever see in a western, and that it somehow works is a testament to the abilities of all involved.

Hey, I Know That Guy!: You’ll probably recognize all the actors mentioned by name.  You’ll probably also recognize Deever’s father and mother.  The father is played by Kenneth McMillan, a character actor who is probably best known as Dune’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Alice Drummond plays the mother.  You’ll recognize her from lots of stuff, but the second you will see her, you will rememberher as the librarian in Ghostbusters.

Nostalgia Score: 7/10.  Again, this really smacks of the era.  It’s interesting to see James Woods back when he wasn’t such hot shit.  At the time, he wasmore recognizable as a television actor.

Movie Score: 71/100


More Retro Reviews from 1981:

Hanger 18
The Incredible Shrinking Woman
Pacific Banana
Fort Apache, The Bronx

Posts: 739
Posted: 6 years 35 weeks ago

Goiter's copy really DID come from the Bargain Bin - but I think he still paid too much for it, as the disc suffers from mid-level "Laser Rot." This rare, LaserDisc-killing phenomenon occurs when the glue holding the two disc halves together oxidizes (usually as the result of manufacturing error - American manufacturers of LaserDiscs were far more guilty of this than Japanese ones). Early stage Laser Rot presents itself with "multicolor video speckles/lines" appearing randomly on the screen, marring the normally superior analog LaserDisc picture. Goiter's disc had already moved on to the next stage, where digital audio acts crazy - there was static, and, for some reason, the audio on the 2nd side wouldn't play at first (it finally started working after we skipped the movie ahead 5 minutes, and then rewound it). Unfortunately, I need a new remote for the player, so we couldn't switch to the analog soundtrack, which normally isn't affected (I will order a remote before he needs the player again for an '81 Retro Review). Again, the crazy audio was not the fault of my dedicated, industrial-grade, ex-high-school-science-room player, but the nefarious Laser Rot! I myself have 15-20 discs (out of a collection of nearly 200 titles) that suffer from early-stage.

Point of the Above Long-Winded Explanation:
I was in another room for most of the time Goiter was watching the movie - due to the audio quality being as poor as it was, I kept hearing "Bieber" instead of "Deeder." I thought Goiter's Bieber Fever had reached a new level.

The Swollen Goi...
Posts: 14343
Posted: 6 years 35 weeks ago

You can see a shot of that awesome couch Thursty describes at 1:57.

Thurston McQ
Location: Germany
Posts: 142
Posted: 6 years 35 weeks ago

That's a pretty well edited trailer.  It's misleading in that it gives you the impression it's more her movie than his, but it's still pretty nice.

Mal Shot First
Posts: 3180
Posted: 6 years 35 weeks ago

Furniture of that type was donated to us when we moved to the U.S. That couch wasn't particularly comfortable and I didn't enjoy sitting on it.

The Swollen Goi...
Posts: 14343
Posted: 6 years 35 weeks ago

Those sorts of couches are only meant to be sat on when the sitter is clothed from head to toe.  Any exposed skin will be made to itch.