Perhaps one of the stranger fates to befall a popular leading man of the 1930s and 40s was the late career trajectory of Ray Milland. Stranger still was the fact that he was an Oscar winner, having been awarded the Best Actor statue for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). If not best known for his portrayal of alcoholic writer Don Birnam in present day references, Milland is often recognized for his late career work Love Story (1970) or in such B-films like The Thing with Two Heads (1972)and Frogs (1972). One of Paramount’s most profitable contract players during the studio era, Milland was best known before The Lost Weekend as a handsome and suave leading man in romantic comedies and lighter dramas.
Yet post-Lost Weekend Milland was rarely offered roles that allowed him to push further into the serious dramatic material that he had successfully ventured into with that film. There are exceptions, namely The Big Clock (1948)and Alias Nick Beal (1949) for John Farrow, and Lewis Allen’s So Evil My Love (1948), noirs which allowed Milland to portray more complicated, sinister characters. Milland’s own Welsh upbringing and time in the British Household Calvary gave him an air of British sophistication, something that played well into his casting as debonair gentlemen in the 1930s and 40s and gave an edge of upper-class smarminess to his later roles. Milland’s post-Lost Weekend career can be looked at as an odd and somewhat sad downturn for a once prolific actor, but conversely can be explored through the more varied roles and hats Milland was allowed to wear once his Paramount contract expired.
In the 1950s, Milland’s filmography is filled with mostly forgettable comedies and melodramas, with a few westerns thrown in. Like many other older Hollywood stars, he ventured into television as well, and eventually found himself starring in low-budget science fiction/horror films for Roger Corman at American International Pictures. It was during this time period, free from his nearly 20 years at Paramount, that Milland finally got to try his hand at directing, something he had long wanted to do. In total, Milland directed five films, all lower-budget, for smaller companies like Republic or AIP. As a stipulation, Milland had to juggle a lead acting part and often producing and writing duties in order to be allowed to helm these pictures.
Hostile Witness is the last of the five films that Milland directed. Adapted from a play by Jack Roffey by its own playwright, Milland had already played the lead role during its Broadway run in 1966. Taking place in 1960s London, Milland plays successful barrister Simon Crawford. The experienced lawyer has a knack for getting seemingly guilty clients off the hook, and runs his own chambers with an iron fist. Crawford is widowed with an adult daughter, Joanna (Sandra Fehr), and while somewhat an intimidating personality, is well-liked by his colleagues.
On a visit home, Joanna is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver near Crawford’s flat. Crawford is distraught, and when police and private investigators fail to identify the driver, he vows to kill the man responsible for the accident if he ever finds him.
Returning to his flat one night, Crawford is struck on the head and left unconscious. He is found and brought in by his friend, Major Hugh Maitland (Geoffrey Lumsden). The next morning, Crawford’s neighbor and friend, high court justice Matthew Gregory, is found stabbed to death inside his apartment. Upon questioning Crawford, the investigator finds a letter from one of Crawford’s private investigators identifying Gregory as the man who hit Joanna. With Maitland as his only alibi, coupled with Crawford’s previous threat to kill the man responsible and other physical evidence, Crawford is arrested as the chief murder suspect.
Insisting that he has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Crawford has young Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms), his up-and-coming assistant, represent him in the trial. The odds seem squarely against Crawford, whose case hinges on the testimony of the eccentric Maitland. Pegged as a hostile witness for the prosecution, Crawford takes his own chances with Maitland as the latter’s unstable recollections of the night of the murder could put Crawford’s alibi in doubt.
As an example of courtroom drama, Hostile Witness presents a gripping case which is engaging enough to warrant sitting through its nearly two hour running time. Even in his older age Milland is still a master actor, conveying much subtly through his face and body movements in a setting that does not allow for grand gestures. It is also his aloof quality that makes one wonder if Crawford is telling the truth or really was capable of murder. As a cinematic product, however, the film leans heavily on its stage roots and becomes almost too static and one-dimensional. Hostile Witness suffers from this in that it often feels more like an older television series in its bright, uniform lighting and medium shots. In fact, towards the end of the film, this is highlighted through the almost comic use of shot-reverse-shot between Crawford’s accusations towards a witness and the latter’s repeated response of “No!” Having seen three of the Milland-directed films I would say although he exhibits little discernible visual style, he does seem to understand the basics of the language well, and his films are clean and clear examples of the dominant continuity style. Part of this may be with the quality of the narrative material itself, as I find Milland’s A Man Alone (1955) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962) much stronger and compelling examples of both visual and narrative story telling than Hostile Witness. Yet although Hostile Witness stumbles slightly over these points and its convoluted ending, the film offers fine performances by most of its cast and is worth a look as a more intimate character study-driven whodunit.