Friday, 20 May 2016

Mute Witness (1994)

I love a good Euro-pudding, and Mute Witness is even more of a mish-mash than most; German-financed, British-Lebanese director, filmed in Moscow, made for American distribution, starring American, British and Russian actors and with a distinctive Italian Giallo flavour, the film was pretty much in development for ten years before it finally saw the light of day. 

Writer/director Anthony Waller was a UK-based director of award winning adverts when he wrote his first full length screenplay in the mid '80s; a film set in 1930s Chicago dealing with civil authority corruption and the rise of gang law. Between that point and 1993 when Mute Witness commenced filming, Waller had totally rewritten his script to set it in Yeltsin's Moscow, a city whose sociopolitical situation was, to his mind, not too dissimilar to Prohibition-era Chicago. In the bag already was an effective cameo from Sir Alec Guinness whom Waller had convinced to appear in his film way back in 1986 and whose scenes as an underworld kingpin known as The Reaper ("see his face, and die") were shot in Germany over the course of just one morning in that year, before subsequently being edited into the final version eight years later. It was to be, technically, the legendary thespian's last feature film. Hey, it doesn't matter that he's clearly dressed as a 1930s gangland Godfather, does it?

Waller's film concerns a mute American special effects coordinator, Billy Hughes (played by acclaimed and beautiful Russian actress Marina Zudina, with the language barrier being deftly handled by her character's inability to speak), who working on a low-budget slasher horror movie in Moscow alongside her sister Karen (British actress Fay Ripley) and Andy, her sister's boyfriend (Evan Richards) who is the director of the flick. There's a case of art imitating life when Andy reveals he's filming in Russia for its cheap labour costs, which is exactly the reason why Waller based himself there too.

When Billy accidentally gets locked in at the set after the production has wrapped for for the evening, she observes the local Russian crew doing some decidedly unofficial overtime, filming what she initially believes to be a cheap porno. But when the male actor pulls a knife and proceeds to brutally murder his female co-star, Billy quickly realises she's stumbled upon a snuff movie operation. 

What immediately follows is a very long, extremely effective and utterly nail biting 'stalk and chase' sequence that would be critically acclaimed to the hilt if this were a better known feature. Narrowly fleeing the scene with her life, Billy then proceeds in her attempt to convince the Russian authorities - along with Andy the director -  that the crew are a part of a crazed killer pornography ring but, as with the best Hitchcockian traditions, the bad guys are clever enough to convince everyone that a 'hysterical' Billy only saw a fictional murder as part of Andy's shoot.

Unfortunately, Waller doesn't just stick with this perfectly serviceable plot and overeggs his Euro pudding somewhat with the introduction, in the film's latter stages, of what is presumably a left over from the original 30s Chicago draft; corruption at the highest levels and an international conspiracy thriller element, complete with a stolen floppy disk and Oleg Yankovsky's undercover detective. Coming after that impressive opening 40 minutes, it is a little frustrating.

But there's much more in the film's favour overall than it's failings. Like Hitchcock, Waller isn't afraid of injecting some wonderfully quirky,  laugh out loud black comedy into the proceedings. When faced with a murderer intent on taking out their only witness for the second time, how does a young mute girl attract the attention of her neighbour across the street - why, flash at him of course! And, whilst the murderer takes apart the flat to get at her, the neighbour downstairs is thumping at his ceiling to protest at the noise that is keeping him awake! There's also the great comic support provided by Evan Richards and Fay Ripley as Andy and Karen who run around always a step behind Billy like a wisecracking and bickering sitcom/screwball couple who have just wandered in from a Woody Allen film (Manhattan Murder Mystery perhaps?). Waller clearly has fun sending up would-be auteurs of the Gen X age with Andy, whilst Ripley is both considerably tougher than her weedy boyfriend and believably supportive of her disabled sister Billy. It's just a shame Waller insisted on his siblings being American, as Ripley's accent often slips. Why they couldn't have been British I do not know. Shortly after this, Ripley would become a household name thanks to her role as Jenny Gifford in 1990s hit comedy drama Cold Feet employing the same strengths she shows here. And I always found her to be very easy on the eye and a really charismatic screen presence, so that helps too.

Ultimately though, the film's strongest character is of course it's leading lady who is not only mute, but is also further handicapped in being an American in a foreign land; she's unable to speak and unable to understand what her enemies are saying as well. Marina Zudina is great in the central role, conveying so much with her eyes and genuinely making us care for her character. You can trace the lineage of Billy Hughes right through all the populist scream queen figures  and particular homage is due to Audrey Hepburn's role as the blind heroine of Wait Until Dark, meaning that Waller's Euro pudding like all the best Euro puddings offers a convincing and affectionately postmodern critique on Hollywood and especially so considering much of the fun is had at exploring the nature of a film within a film. 

I hadn't seen this one in ages, so glad I decided to reacquaint myself with it once more last night.

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