She’s seen more than she thinks he has.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s movie is a film from 1981 with A-list talent, a murder plot, and absolutely zero recognition among ’80s thriller fans.
Daryll Deaver (William Hurt) is a Vietnam veteran who’s found a post-war career working as a janitor at a company top-lined by Vietnamese executives. It’s an arrangement he’s come to accept, but his best friend Aldo Mercer (James Woods), also a vet, was unable to do the same. Aldo was recently fired and holds a grudge against the CEO, and when Daryll finds the Asian man murdered with a slice across his neck his suspicions turn towards his friend.
Aldo doesn’t exactly deny it either, but Daryll’s got other things on his mind than turning over his friend to the police. That thing is Tony Sokolow (Sigourney Weaver), a local entertainment reporter who’s caught her big break in being assigned to cover the murder. Daryll’s something of a fan — he records the news every night just to watch her segments — and he’s not about to let this opportunity pass him by. He offers her an interview and teases knowledge about the case without actually revealing that while he found the body he actually has no other information as to the crime. The catch? She’ll need to go on a date with him to hear more.
Tony’s a reporter on the rise, and while she knows it’s unethical and won’t go over well with her boyfriend Joseph (Christopher Plummer) she agrees to Daryll’s terms. Joseph’s busy anyway working to finance the rescue of Jews out of an increasingly hostile Soviet Union, but Tony’s instincts were right in that Joseph’s not thrilled when he discovers just how far she’s gone in pursuit of a story.
A pair of detectives, Black (Morgan Freeman) and Jacobs (Steven Hill), are working the case and zeroing in on the two Vietnam vets while Aldo’s sister Linda (Pamela Reed) and Daryll’s dad (Kenneth McMillan) are also along for the ride complicating things in their own familial ways.
It’s a full house of anger, attraction, ambition, and addiction, and somewhere among them sits a murderer.
There’s roughly a thirty year period where adult thrillers had a good run out of Hollywood. I’m not talking specifically about the saucy kind — think Basic Instinct or Jade — but about thrillers made for audiences looking for more than just explosions, car chases, and PG-13 violence. Peter Yates‘ Eyewitness fits into this category as a drama touching on various topics that would be of absolutely no interest to teenage audiences. Jewish refugees? Vietnam war angst? The fine art of rewinding a VHS tape?
The film, written by Steve Tesich (who also wrote Yates’ classic Breaking Away), is in no rush to investigate the murder. In fact, if you’re a regular thriller fan you can probably spot the killer using only the description above — and the film’s okay with that. Yes it’s a mystery of sorts, but the scenes revealing the truth are more about being duty-bound to the necessity of narrative closure than anything else. Instead the film offers a look at people in need.
Daryll is in need of love, and while he goes about it in a somewhat creepy way — his pitch to buff Tony’s floors, slowly, is all kinds of icky — there’s no denying his sincerity. Aldo wants people to see him as strong, but his gambling debts and war record as a coward aren’t helping. Joseph feels compelled to help people half a world away despite the cost here at home. Linda wants more than being shoehorned into a relationship with her brother’s friend. The detectives need to solve this case, preferably in a way that allows one of them to retire shortly without ever having killed a suspect.
In short, they’re all witnesses to their own needs and the needs of those around them. The murder plot sits just off to the side, and while it occasionally pokes in its head in the form of angry Vietnamese enforcers seeking their own resolution the core of the film is about relationships. A love story, a tested bond between friends, friction among family. These are adults caught up in life and only briefly distracted by a vicious murder.
It’s odd, but it’s also entertaining and deserving of not being forgotten.
Eyewitness is a solid dramatic thriller with engaging characters, red herrings, and a pair of effective action sequences — a shootout and a brief motorcycle/car chase — and while it doesn’t have the flashiness of many of its contemporaries it’s worth seeking out for fans of great actors and characters who are slightly more thought-provoking than normal.
Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections .
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