Mute Witness (1995)


Germany/UK. 1995.


Director/Screenplay – Anthony Waller, Producers – Anthony Waller, Alexander Buchman & Norbert Soentgen, Photography – Egor Werdin, Music – Walter Hirsch, Production Design – Matthias Kammermeier. Production Company – Avrora Media/Cobblestone Pictures/Comet Filmproduktion/Patoss Films


Mary Sudina (Billy Hughes), Fay Ripley (Karen Hughes), Evan Richards (Andy Clarke), Oleg Jankowskij (Inspector Alexander Larsen), Igor Volkow (Arkadi), Segrei Karlenkov (Lyosha), Alex Bureew (Strohbecker), Mystery Guest Star [Alec Guinness] (The Reaper)


An American film company is shooting a horror film in Moscow. The mute makeup effects artist Billy Hughes returns to the studio after everybody leaves for something she has left behind. She walks in to find two men shooting a snuff movie and, as she watches, murdering a woman. She is seen and flees. However, when she returns with the police, all evidence has been removed and the filmmakers claim they were only shooting tests scenes for the horror film. The Reaper, the powerful head of the Russian vice syndicate that sponsors the filmmakers, demands that Billy be eliminated. As hired killers come after her, she tries to flee, but her efforts are hampered by police who are in The Reaper’s pay and her own inability to speak.

Mute Witness was an extraordinarily assured debut for former commercials director Anthony Waller. It is by no means the usual low-budget debut – to keep the budget down Anthony Waller took his cast and crew to Moscow (the mute lead character is played by a Russian actress, for example) where the lower value of the rouble allowed money to go further and Waller to make a film that looks surprisingly lavish, even for him to shoot in widescreen. In a canny move, Waller even managed to get a cameo from Alec Guinness (credited only as The Mystery Guest) in scenes that he shot an entire decade before making the film, after meeting Guinness at a film festival.

Anthony Waller’s grasp of the film is intensive. The film is a rapid adrenalin ride right from the outset and Waller rarely lets up. The run through the deserted film studio at the start is an incredibly tense sequence – with the heroine hanging from lift shafts; some incredibly anxious shots like the one where Mary Sudina hides from one of the killers in the stairwell only to be cornered by the shadow of the other killer coming up from below; or her run from her killers to the door, the breathlessness of the scene being fully conveyed in one remarkable focus-changing split diopter shot, then bursting through the door only to fall over the balcony but have the fall broken by a landing in a tub of film cans. The attack on Mary Sudina in her apartment is equally gruelling.

For all the assured audacity of its style, Mute Witness is also an incredibly manipulative film. Anthony Waller has no shame when it comes to the shock effects he is prepared to throw us into the midst of and then pull back and say “Just kidding!” There is a slow motion sequence where we are led to believe one of the killers stabs Evan Richards with a knife, which then pulls back only to show it was a fake prop knife. Most obvious of these is the faked shooting of Mary Sudina at the ending. Even after it is over, Anthony Waller gets one final jump in by having a bullet go off before pulling back to show it is Evan Richards playing around with the explosive charges. The plot becomes extraordinarily improbable at times – it is almost impossible to work out which side which cop is on and the character of Larsen changes side so many times that one completely loses track. In a lesser film, such improbabilities and outright manipulation would be a major annoyance. Such is the pleasure that can be taken in the suspense that Anthony Waller generates that one is prepared to go along with this.

Anthony Waller never went onto do anything else that Mute Witness suggested he could have. He subsequently made the disappointing An American Werewolf in Paris (1997) and the little-seen thriller The Guilty (1999). Waller’s output slowed in the subsequent decade but he then returned with two genre productions, Nine Miles Down (2009) about a mineshaft that may have drilled all the way down to Hell, and The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future (2010), a quasi-documentary/work of science-fiction about the growth of artificial intelligence.

(Nominee for Best Director (Anthony Waller) at this site’s Best of 1995 Awards).

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