1985 was the year we got “Out of Africa,” “Back to the Future,” and “Witness,” one of the best thrillers ever made, with a young handsome Harrison Ford. Here then is … “Witness.”

Australian director Peter Weir softly begins his film with a funeral deep in Amish farmland country near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then in a series of fast moving scenes, skillfully sets all of the pieces for one of the best cop thrillers of the ’80s.

Opening:

The young widow, Rachel, an Amish woman, (Kelly McGillis), takes a breather after the wake from her religious community, along with her 9-year-old son Samuel (a seriously adorable and gifted Lukas Haas) and boards a train for Baltimore to visit her sister.

Waiting to change trains in Philadelphia, Rachel sits with their luggage in a side corner of the station, waiting for Samuel to go to the men’s room, where hidden from sight in a stall, he witnesses two men enter, attack a young man trying to leave and brutally murder him.

As they go to the door to leave, the killer hears Samuel’s squeaking door, pulls his gun and searches each stall.

This sequence plays out in only two long minutes, as Samuel slides from stall to stall to avoid death. It’s a breathtaking shot.

We suddenly find ourselves with Rachel and Samuel in a roped off section of the station, where Samuel is being gently questioned by Detective John Book (Harrison Ford).

Samuel describes the two killers when asked, “ What did the man with the knife look like?”

Samuel points to Book’s partner (Brent Jennings) who is Black.

“He was a Black man like my partner?”

Samuel nods.

Later in the squad room, Samuel, curious as always, wanders over to an award case and sees a picture of Detective McFee (Danny Glover).

This moment is an example of how Weir builds his tension. Book is on the phone but spots Samuel. Samuel looks over at Book. Eyes meet.

Book senses the moment and goes to him, looks around and whispers — “Him? That’s the man you saw ?”

Samuel nods and the most important piece, and the movie, begins to roll forward like an out of control truck rolling downhill.

Book knows that Samuel and Rachel’s lives are in danger, and that he has to move fast.

He takes them to a safe place, his sister’s (Patti LuPone) house and then goes to his boss, Chief of Detectives Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) and divulges what happened. By watching Schaeffer’s expressions and questions, we know that Book has trusted the wrong man.

Now the brakes on the truck are off.

McFee (Glover) tipped off (by whom?) that Book has an eye witness, ambushes Book in basement garage, seriously wounding him.

We have our life and death situation. While losing blood fast, Book, hiding his wound, has to get Rachel and his witness out of town fast.

Where? Where else? Rachel’s home.

Here is where Weir slows down to let us take in the scenery, get an Amish doctor’s help to keep Book alive, get him costumed for safety as an Amish farmer, and let him fall in love, of course, with Rachel.

Slowly we have learned, that a trio, Chief Schaeffer, McFee and another detective, pocketed $23 million in illegal doings and need John Book dead. Will they find Book and Rachel?

For free, you will get a full plate: a couple of very sensual scenes, a great love story, a handful of powerful performances from the stars, an adorable Lukas Haas, cows and corn, but no dog.

Add on a rendering of the Amish world with an actual barn raising, (real Amish didn’t want to be on camera, so Mennonites were used) and, of course, a very satisfactory shoot out in a grain silo and cow barn. Trust me. Director Weir knows how to build a thriller, and William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl W. Wallace give him a taut script to work with.

Harrison picks up some noir energy here that he will later take with him to create a powerful Dr. Richard Kimble, a hunted and haunted victim in 1993’s “The Fugitive.”

How well was “Witness” treated by Hollywood? It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, won Best Original Screenplay, and six Golden Globe Awards. It had the best score for that kind of picture, by Maurice Jaare, and Ford was nominated for Best Actor.

“Witness” took its many awards and settled into movie history, but here it is back, available on Showtime with showings on SHOSHD from now to July 27, where we get to hear young Harrison Ford sing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.”

 

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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