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Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most capable and savvy Hollywood actresses ever, a star who never gave a bad performance. She weathered the 1950s in fine form, making her share of great pictures and always playing leading roles. In 1954 she worked for independent producer Chester Erskine, who had written, produced and directed the hit The Egg and I and written and directed odd pix like Androcles and the Lion. He'd just come up with the stories for the noir pictures Angel Face and Split Second, and took on producing chores as well for a third, Witness to Murder. A founding creator of the noir style, Stanwyck won acclaim for her turn as a terrified woman marked for murder in the immensely popular Sorry, Wrong Number. Erskine's original story also shares a number of similarities with the 1949 hit The Window, a movie about a boy witnessing a killing through an apartment window, and then being chased to the top of a building under construction. And if that's not enough extremes for Stanwyck to perform, the show also tosses in a bit of The Snake Pit.
Interior decorator Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) looks out her apartment window one night and sees a man strangling a woman to death. But the clever killer Albert Richter (George Sanders) hides the body and puts on a good show for the investigating officers Lawrence Mathews and Eddie Vincent (Gary Merrill & Jesse White). Even before they meet her, they seem to assume that the whole thing was Cheryl's imagination. Cheryl is convinced to drop the matter, but snoops on her own. This alerts Richter, who begins a careful plan to make Cheryl appear utterly unstable, so that the authorities will believe his claim that is she who is persecuting him. Richter is eventually able to tell her to her face that he's going to win. By faking threat notes he induces the cops to have Cheryl institutionalized for observation. Lawrence Mathews has expressed interest and concern for Cheryl, but has always maintained that she's simply mistaken. But he thinks she's gone too far when she claims that Richter means to kill her and make it look like suicide.
Witness to Murder is an only partly successful exercise in the paranoia sweepstakes. At every step of the investigation the cops dismiss her as a ninny; the 'evidence' won't back up her eyewitness account, and when a woman is involved no further thought is necessary. George Sanders plays the nasty villain with his usual oily superficiality, putting on a show of condescending cooperation with the police. That he keeps showing up at the precinct should be suspicious, even without taking into account that he's an unsuccessful author whose books promote Nietszche's superman theories (add Rope to the source pile, there). Instead of believing that Cheryl is a ditz who has lost her marbles, we think the cops might frame the sneeringly obnoxious Richter just to see him squirm.
Barbara Stanwyck does what she can but is also aware of the limitations of her own star personality: Stanwyck simply doesn't play characters this weak. Draper consistently folds up under lame pressure from the cop (later, her cop-boyfriend) and consistently loses control of her emotions when bullied and rattled by the officials confronting her with Richter's rigged evidence. That really isn't "our" Barbara, who emanates enough force of personality to dominate any situation. Because Cheryl isn't supposed to be a shrinking violet - she aggressively investigates Richter's apartment -- the plot of Witness to Murder drives the characters instead of the other way around.
In 1954 a number of low budget producers were distributing through UA, making crime films like Without Warning!, Vice Squad and Wicked Woman. All three share mostly flat, uninteresting visuals. This movie can afford Stanwyck but in other aspects is filmed at a similar level of production. The difference is in the choice of cinematographers. Cameraman John Alton keeps ordinary scenes in apartments and offices slightly under-lit, and everywhere else makes fine use of expressive shadows. Although not as extreme as his more stylized work - there are no deep-focus compositions - but the artful lighting lends drama to dull sets and excitement to a fairly tame fight. The very first scene features a dramatic shot of Stanwyck walking to a window like the kid in Invaders from Mars. Alton's work elevates Witness to Murder to the status of a lower-rank "A" picture. She sees the killing through a window just across the way, just like the strangling in The Naked City. The precise camera move and framing look like Alton's signature style. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Ms. Stanwyck waited to sign up until a good cameraman was on board.
Barbara Stanwyck looks good but we do see signs of filtering used to soften her close-ups, which are usually no closer than two-shots. Stanwyck doesn't try to pass herself off as a woman in her twenties, as might Joan Crawford. Cheryl shows a bit of noirish resignation when she admits that she returned to interior decorating after failing to make it in the New York art world. Richter manages to get her sent to a psycho ward, there to be frightened by an unhinged floozy (Claire Carlton) and a blues-singing inmate (Juanita Moore, depressingly billed as "negress-mental patient"). After a short talk with a psychiatrist who scarcely looks at her, Cheryl finds herself once again facing the menacing Richter, this time with her credibility completely shot.
Roy Rowland's direction isn't much to talk about, so it's the Stanwyck, Sanders and John Alton show all the way. Richter has a scene where he lectures Cheryl about his übermench license to kill women as he sees fit; Sanders pulls it off even though he has to give a ridiculous speech in German. The writer seems to think that anybody capable of manipulating a murder investigation must be a twisted genius. Actually, Richter's clever tricks keep the case alive just long enough for an obvious connection between him and his previous murder victim to come to light. Preferably in the nick of time to save poor Cheryl.
Comic Jesse White gets to make an amusing reference to the Dragnet TV show but otherwise hangs around in the background as squire to Gary Merrill's lead detective Mathews. If Merrill and Stanwyck generate no chemistry it's because he comes off as an insensitive jerk, even when he refuses to drop the case. He doesn't believe her story, yet wants to date her. Cheryl can find better.
The movie has an inordinate number of unnecessary continuity issues, like inserts of typewritten notes that don't match the machine they're supposed to have been written with. The geography of rooms is turned around, and a map on the wall confuses us as to what city we're supposed to be in. The oddest choice is to show Cheryl, without visual aid, getting a close-up view of a window across the street. Later shots reveal the building to be much too far away for her to see a murder occurring inside. 1 It all made little difference at the box office. The reasonably satisfying Witness to Murder was completely overshadowed by the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, a far more accomplished tale about a murder spotted from the next apartment building.
The audio track is also very clean. Juanita Moore's song "Nowhere Blues" has lyrics written by Sylvia Fine, songwriter for her husband, Danny Kaye.
A textless trailer is the only extra ... it plays very unevenly as several shots are meant to have sales text superimposed. Although Stanwyck narrates part of the trailer, an announcer's voice may be missing as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Witness to Murder Blu-ray rates:
1. The location is about a mile and a half from Savant Central in Los Angeles. I've found a blog webpage from 2011 called Dear Old Hollywood with a full pictorial comparison of the location between1954 and today sixty years later. The two apartment buildings are too far apart to see anything at all, window to window. Return
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T'was Ever Thus.