Eyewitness

Remember when movies had characters?
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Peter Yates
Starring: 
William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer, James Woods
The Setup: 
Guy pretends to have witnessed a murder to get next to a reporter he has a crush on.
Discussion: 

This is one that has always been in the back of my mind, and finally it made it to the top of my list. It turns out to be one of those average thrillers that make you realize that back in the 70s (this as released in '81, but is clearly coming off the 70s) even average movies had interesting characters, and a lot of the interest and suspense of the movie could be created by the interplay of these characters. And for New Yorkers, there's a lot of great location footage that shows New York in the early 80s, including a special treat for me personally at the end.

So we meet William Hurt as Daryll Deaver, lowly janitor in the same building Griffin Dunne works in After Hours. Upstairs is a Vietnamese company, and Hurt puts in a word for his friend Aldo, who was recently fired by the head dude there. Then he goes home to his ratty apartment on the Lower East Side, where he has a dog that attacks him when he comes in the door, but it's all in play. We see that Daryll sets his VCR to tape the news while he's out, because he's in love with anchorperson Sigourney Weaver as Antonia (Tony). We then join her at a fund-raiser to spring Israeli activists from capture, and meet her wealthy Jewish parents, and boyfriend Joseph, played by Christopher Plummer.

The next night Aldo stops by Daryll's work again and we hear that they were both in Vietnam, and Aldo still retains a simmering hatred for the Vietnamese. Daryll then goes upstairs and finds the Vietnamese businessman who fired Aldo has been murdered. The police, including Morgan Freeman, stop by, and Daryll is interrogated. When he comes outside, the news media have gathered, including Tony. Daryll goes up to her intimating that he knows something about the case. When she interviews him, however, all he has to say is how obsessed with her he is, and how he'd like to take her out. She blows him off, but is told by her boss to use her wiles to get the story, so she takes time out for him when he just happens to be in Central Park (which appears amazingly non-developed in contrast to how we know it today), where she said she rode horses every Tuesday. She tries to draw him out, but he is offended at every suggestion that she just wants a story, and isn't interested in him.

SPOILERS > > >
They're going to meet later when Tony is attacked by the Vietnamese, who are watching her thinking that she's involved with the killings, and Daryll saves her. They return to Daryll's apartment, where they end up spending the night. There's a nice little moment as we see Aldo waiting outside Daryll's apartment, getting a light from Joseph, who is also watching them.

The next day Aldo comes by and is freaked that Daryll doesn't want to marry his sister, which he had kind of planned as a way of bringing him into the family (and under his control), and things get violent. He turns up at work again, still seeming highly suspicious, but he says he's not in murder trouble, he's in loan shark trouble. That night Daryll and Tony return to Daryll's apartment to find it has been broken into--and the burglar is still there. As they struggle, Tony sees--it's Joseph!

We soon find that Tony's parents are in on it with Joseph, and it has to do with springing an Israeli activist and bringing him to the States. Her parents don't approve of his tactics and want out, but he's a bit out of control now. The revelation that she can't trust her own family is a huge bummer to Tony. Her parents call Daryll to arrange a peace, but Joseph calls and tells him a different address--where Daryll can be killed.
< < < SPOILERS END

The address he gives turns out to be these stables that were on the next block over from my first apartment in New York, and that's where the climax takes place, which was pretty fascinating for me. It winds up pretty much as expected, but once it's over, one has to wonder at the difference of this movie to the common films of today, in that back then it was fairly common for even somewhat tepid thrillers like this one to have characters, and the plot to generate tension purely from those characters. Daryll is lying about what he knows, and is obviously a bit of a weirdo... is he somehow more dangerous than we know? Is he going to protect Aldo because he's the intended brother-in-law? How far is Tony going to go in seducing Daryll, when we know she is deeply involved with someone else? And then there's all the little family secrets and hidden alliances that are revealed. Not to mention that even the two detectives and Aldo's sister, played by a wonderful Pamela Reed, each get their own little stories that don't have much to do with the main story, but help to flesh out everyone's inner lives. So while this movie may not be much more than a good average for the time, looking back now, it seems like a rich and interesting story woven with all kinds of deep characters.

Other than that, it's clever enough and has enough nice touches and reversals to make it smart and rewarding. And if you live in New York, you get a lot of great location footage of the city back then, when it was still a little raunchy, still mostly full of mom-and-pop stores and not national chains, and looked like a place that was still lived in by average people, not all yuppies with the money to try to live out some New York lifestyle they've seen on TV. Not an undiscovered gem, but a nice, better-than-expected thriller that will reward your time and attention.

Should you watch it: 

If you like these well-done 70s/80s thrillers, go for it.