Filmmaker Peter Yates made two very good films that have been popularly canonized as classics. The first of these two films is Bullitt (1968) and the second was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973). Although stylistically quite different, each film tackles a specific genre and how it relates to masculine identity. A car chase or a plan for a heist become abstract metaphors for a male identity in crisis. This theme reverberates throughout Yates’ filmography to varying degrees.
By the time Yates made Eyewitness (1981) he had established himself as a purveyor of whodunnits and thrillers. Yates made these films his specialty and as such even the most mediocre outings offer well-crafted spectacles. Eyewitness is very well crafted but it contains more big ideas than it can ultimately handle. Yates’ simply bites off more than the boilerplate plot can support, turning in a film that doesn’t offer the audience any real sense of closure or resolution.
The most interesting theme is Eyewitness is that the protagonist William Hurt is greatly exaggerating his knowledge of a murder in order to seduce television journalist Sigourney Weaver. Hurt’s janitor is a Vietnam vet who externalizes his masculine virility via a motorcycle and an attack dog. He essentially stalks and manipulates his way into a celebrity’s heart and there are no ramifications. This gritty thriller instead spins Hurt’s Ruppert Pupkin-like behavior as charming and romantic.
The focus of the film should have been on Weaver because she is the actual central character. It is her job that brings her into contact with a crime scene and her boyfriend Christopher Plummer who has committed said crime. What Eyewitness delivers instead is a film about a guy using a murder to get what he wants. It’s fine to make the protagonist morally corrupt, the film just has to acknowledge and address that corruption.
The same is true of every idea introduced in Eyewitness. Yates brings an interesting concept into the film but never elaborates or even addresses the concept. The specter of the Vietnam War looms over the film but it’s never allowed to be a part of the characters or their world. Eyewitness doesn’t even boast the daring set pieces of Bullitt nor the acting of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. What Eyewitness offers is little more than mild escapism.