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Friday Noir: Witness to Murder

Written by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson Directed by Roy Rowland U.S.A., 1954

Written by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson
Directed by Roy Rowland
U.S.A., 1954

Some films don’t have to follow recognizable templates in order to be good, rollicking pieces of entertainment, or captivating character explorations for that matter. When the stars align, a certain film can permit itself to go off the deep end with a few unexpected gonzo tricks, yet still keep its themes and story sufficiently cogent. The argument that so-and-so film ‘doesn’t know what it wants to be’ is both tired and still regularly apt. Filmmakers try to get too bold, too adventurous with the labyrinthine plots, incurring the risk of losing focus, and by extent the audience’s interest. If Decoy (reviewed for the column last summer) was Exhibit A in strange storytelling, Friday Noir presents Exhibit B: Witness to Murder, released in 1954. Keep that year in mind and read on for the plot synopsis below.

One night while alone at home in her upper middle class apartment, Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) looks out from her window and takes notice of a horrifying act in the dwelling across the street from hers: a man is strangling a woman. Moments later, the victim fall completely limp, the life squeezed out of her. Cheryl quickly calls the police, who go about their business by investigating the premise and the gentleman’s home. The suspect, middling author Albert Richter (George Sanders), is a clever fellow, fiendish and quick witted enough to throw Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and his partner off the trail. Mathews comfortingly tries to explain to a panicky Cheryl that she probably didn’t actually see what she thought she did. Cheryl is having none of it, and takes it upon herself to dig up dirt on Richter and prove his guilt. What follows are enough twists and turns to make M. Night Shyamalan blush, including a trip to a mental institute.  

While no noir can probably match Decoy for sheer lunacy (that movie literally resurrects a dead chap, thus instantly earning a gold medal), director Roy Rowland’s Witness to Murder doesn’t stray too far with regards to sheer gusto and bravura when throwing its protagonist through the ringer and then some. Interestingly enough, the film had its theatrical releases on April 15th 1954 in the United States. What iconic movie came out on September 1st of that same year? None other than Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which a photographer (James Stewart), confined to a wheelchair in his apartment following an accident, believes a murder has occurred in one of the homes across the courtyard. For all we know, the brief period between the exhibitions of these two movies was no more than coincidence. Or perhaps it was in fact a matter of the industry trying to capitalize on a theme that briefly stood in the limelight of moviegoers’ conscience that year. It is, to be fair, with surprising regularity that two or more films tackling the very similar if not identical subject matter are released within only a few months of one another. Rear Window has justifiably been remembered as one of the great thrillers of its or any era. Who would argue against Hitchcock in his prime?

Witness to Murder, on the hand, has pretty much faded from memory. Kino Lorber were generous enough to provide this crazy little drama a blu-ray release in the spring of 2016 as part of a film noir box set, so hopefully some astute aficionados out there will take it upon themselves to discover the ‘other’ Rear Window film of 1954. Few, if any, are going to write an essay on how or why Rowland’s picture is the superior effort. That being said, it is an arresting, briskly paced escapade about a harrowing episode in one woman’s life as a conniving manipulator almost makes her believe she has lost her mind.

Despite running under 90 minutes, by the time Witness to Murder concludes, the viewers have been on a roller coaster adventure with Cheryl. She goes from headstrong, self-ordained investigator, to potential lover with a kindly detective, to a patient in an insane asylum, and finally to an escapee to whom Richter gives chase through the city streets and all the way up a condominium structure under construction in an action-packed finale. One can easily fault the movie for lacking a coherent identity, or faulting the filmmakers for putting poor Cheryl through so much trouble that the overall film begins to lack credibility. Those criticisms are hard to deny, but the movie nevertheless holds its own through some stellar, if melodramatic performances, stunning photography from legendary cinematographer John Alton, and an unnerving theme that frequently permeates noir.

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The performances are quite solid across the board, but special plaudits are directed towards Hollywood icon Stanwyck, who is asked to perform through an ungodly range of emotions and mental states. For her to inject a modicum of believability in a role that wavers dramatically between strong willed, independent and borderline depressive is a testament to her unquestionable strengths as a thespian. Stanwyck was and shall always remain one of the great names and faces of American film history, while the script might not be air tight, her abilities to anchor the madness (no pun intended) is just another reminder of how good she was. Her magnetism was more readily felt  when playing a tough cookie, and more fun too, but her vulnerable side is a breath of fresh air as well. One should not overlook George Sanders though. Although he isn’t tasked with the heavy lifting, there is a brilliant creepiness about his character and it’s quite obvious that Sanders relishes the opportunity to sink his teeth into role. As a master manipulator, he needs to come off as affable and charming to the characters he speaks to, all the while the viewer is yelling at the screen, imploring the police to not believe him.

One of the key revelations concerning the Richter character is his tie to Nazism. Lt. Mathews reveals that Richter was once a Nazi member party, but as the war drew to a close, he was reportedly reformed, thus making him an acceptable immigrant to the United States. However, as Cheryl comes to discover by reading passages of one of his philosophically-tinged books, Richter is a monster hiding in plain sight. Slightly deranged, prone to violence, the façade of a cultivated socialite eventually melts away. WWII regularly informed film noir. It has often been written and said that it was the horrors of war, the revelation that Man can be soulless and callous that trickled into the psyche of filmmakers who made their earnings in the latter war years and in the decade that followed, hence film noir’s lauded cynicism. Nazism was the chief of those evils, and while Richter feels like a caricature near the end, the fact of the matter is that a psychotic school of thought like Nazism does not necessarily die with the end of a war. It finds new, insidious venues to spread. Creepier still are the skin crawling, Nazi-inclined gatherings and movements that have reared their heads in the United States over the past few months during the current, extremely volatile political climate.

If anything, Witness to Murder is a decent thriller in which viewers get to tag along with Barbara Stanwyck as she sleuths her way through an perverse investigation involving a chap one wants to hand a big slap to the face, then toss in the slammer and throw away the key. One should prepare themselves for some odd twists and turns, but if those are accepted as part of the ride, Rowland’s film can be digested as an off kilter, neat adventure. Also, Nazis suck.

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