Curator’s Blog

The Witness — A Short Film by Denzil Howson and Mike Browning circa 1960

The early years at GTV9 Melbourne were a period that offered many opportunities for creative experimentation. One such experiment was a short film made by Denzil Howson and Mike Browning titled “The Witness”.

Denzil had recorded an audio version of the same story around 15 years earlier when working in radio. But circa 1960 he had access to the facilities of the Bendigo Street studios combined with a skilled collaborator in Mike Browning to create a film version.

The story concerns an escaped prisoner who, firmly convinced of his innocence in a murder case, confronts a retired judge whose house overlooks the scene of the murder and who “must have seen the other man”. But did he?

The idea was for Denzil to play both the prison escapee and the elderly judge and that this feat could be pulled off through clever editing and use of a double for rear shots. It was a collaboration between Denzil as writer and actor and Mike as cameraman and editor to experiment with film technique.

banner image promoting the film

GTV9 staff member Tony Evans played the part of the judge, photographed from the rear, for the shots in which both characters needed to appear.

The Witness was filmed in 16mm black and white and post-produced using the facilities of Fanfare Films, an on-site subsidiary of GTV9. It was an unofficial project which both Denzil and Mike fitted in around their “official” responsibilities.

Denzil retained a copy of the completed film and it became a piece of family culture which was trotted out periodically to watch or to show visitors in the Howson home theatrettes in Melbourne, Albury and Perth.

Over the past couple of years I have produced a restored digital copy of this production. The restoration process is described elsewhere on the “Film Restoration Diary” blog in the posts titled Scanning and Restoring The Witness. It has come up remarkably well considering the poor condition of some of the source materials after nearly 60 years sitting in film cans.

The film definitely has some rough edges and continuity faults — some of which I detail in the comments section below, but keep in mind that this was basically a two-person spare time project put together with a budget of zero. It demonstrates what can be done with meagre resources.

So now, for your viewing enjoyment, we present “The Witness”:

Mike Browning’s Comments About “The Witness”

Circa 2007 Mike Browning (who passed away in 2011) provided me with some background information about the film. The project was Denzil’s idea (as Mike said: “Denzil was always having ideas”). Mike was the cameraman and film editor. Denzil was the writer and performer. The film was shot in a small and rather makeshift film studio at GTV9 using a 16mm Arriflex camera fitted with a wooden blimp which Mike had made himself (a blimp being a housing for a motion picture camera designed to reduce the noise of the camera motor and mechanism when recording live sound). The sound was recorded onto a Stancil Hoffman 16mm magnetic film recorder.

Further Notes on the Film

  • The Involvement of Tony Evans: Towards the end of the film there are shots in which the prison escapee and the judge both appear — the judge sitting in his chair, viewed from behind. This required another person to play the part of the judge for these shots. That person was Tony Evans, who Mike Browning described thus: “Tony worked at GTV as a ‘house producer’, producing quiz shows. He was a close friend of Denzil.”. Tony is listed as the Director in the closing credits, but based on my recollection of conversations with Denzil and with Mike Browning, this may not be an accurate reflection of his role. The credits are not quite accurate. For example there is no acknowledgement of Denzil as the writer or performer. It is a fact that Denzil played down his role in some of his GTV9 projects, often either not accepting a credit or being credited for a less significant range of involvement than was really the case. So for this film, and at this distance in time, with the main players no longer with us, we cannot be certain exactly the extent of Tony’s involvement.

  • The Rainy Night: In the opening and closing street scenes, it appears to be raining. We can see rain falling in front of the house and there is water on the road. My recollection is that according to Denzil it was in fact not a rainy night. The wet road was provided courtesy of the fire brigade who hosed it down for the shoot. In that era, television was such an exotic novelty that cooperation from individuals or organisations was often available for the asking and at no charge.

  • The Police: That same gratis co-operation probably applied to the two police officers. And notice how they are dressed — a simple police uniform and cap — somewhat different from today’s police force!

  • Continuity Errors: The film would not win any awards for continuity. If you look closely there are a number of continuity errors across shot changes. But why let that spoil enjoyment of the story.

Technical Notes on the Restoration

A duplicate negative of the edited original camera reversal, made at the time of production circa 1960, turned out to be the best available source material for scanning. This was scanned on a Golden Eye scanner followed by digital stabilisation and automated dust removal. The audio track was sourced from a 2007 telecine scan of a release print of the film (which was the best available version of the audio track) and cleaned up in iZotope RX. These elements were combined in Final Cut Pro X with grading and minor repairs to splice defects.

A detailed account of the restoration can be found in a three-part article in my Film Restoration Diary, starting with Scanning and Restoring The Witness — Part 1.

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