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Movie Critique - Witness to Murder

For review of all movies starring Barbara Stanwyck, go here.

Stars: 3 / 5

Recommendation: It does have a few issues with the logic, but there is some great performance by all the cast members. All in all it is a decent film noir to watch on any day.

Witness to Murder is a 1954 American crime drama film noir directed by Roy Rowland and produced by Chester Erskine. The film has Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Jesse White and Harry Shannon among others. Screenplay was written by Chester Erskine in collaboration with Nunnally Johnson although not credited. 

Cheryl Draper (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck) looks out of her bedroom window to see a young woman being strangled to death. However when she calls the police, they don’t find any body and chalk it out as dream or illusion of Cheryl, even though Police Lieutenant Lawrence "Larry" Matthews (portrayed by Gary Merrill) has his own suspicions. And this begins the cat and mouse chase between Cheryl and the suspect while turn after turn the movie starts becoming more and more chilling.

The film plotting was very close to Alfred Hitchcock's American mystery thriller Rear Window which was released a few months after Witness to Murder. Although Rear Window was a smash hit, this film considerably failed at box office, sadly. 

The movie also emulates the traditional plotting that we have seen in several films - a key character witnessing a murder while looking out from a train's window. Although in this it is a bedroom window. It is also a classic she said / he said story type, which perhaps would be more successful in current era than back when it was originally released. 

Add to all of that, Barbara Stanwyck is a very strong personality by herself that it wasn't convincing enough to see her as a weak person or a victim. Perhaps Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine or even Ava Gardner could have better suited to the role.

She was 46 years old when she made this movie, and was in her middle-age years. The credit should be given to Stanwyck however for sticking through, finding roles appropriate to her age and stature, without embarrassing herself. 

When Turner Classics Movies (TCM) channel aired the film a few weeks ago, as part of Noir Alley, the host Eddie Muller mentioned that it was originally destined to be part of TCM film festival in April of 2020 but the pandemic cancelled that festival and the movie got pushed to this year to be aired. But the introduction to the film had already been recorded, so this time when the movie aired, Eddie Muller gave an introduction and then showed the viewers the recorded intro from 2020 which again was given my Muller. 

You can see the settings are different for both intros. Also check out the theatrical poster that Muller shares on the TCM channel in his introduction. 

The cinematography by John Alton adds the much needed mystique and mystery to the film along with bringing out the struggles that Stanwyck's Cheryl faces in trying to convince everyone that she did indeed witness a murder; and at the same time prove her sanity. 

George Sanders as Albert Richter is the most insane man portrayed. He is so reasonable even when trying to kill someone or frame someone. He gave me the shivers. And truth be told, his face suits more towards an arrogant bastard kind of roles or a cunning and twisted demented villain, than the romantic hero he portrayed in so many.

Gary Miller as Lieutenant Larry Matthews first comes as those cops who think superior of themselves, but quickly he morphs into a hard-core gumshoe who is determined to solve a crime even if he thinks it was not committed, showing that he believes in Cheryl. 

Despite all the negative feedback the film received upon it's release, it is still a psychological thriller no doubt, giving a feel of both the 1944 American psychological thriller Gaslight and Rear Window to the plot, although at times it dragged a bit. It has more melodrama than mystery and murder. 

But what made this unique was the way the film focuses on one point - that women are easily dismissed of anything they say or see; and also if you are a single woman of a certain age, without a man's support, only cure is to send to a sanitarium. Then finally the film has the classic stalker element which was not identified in those days but has been since seen in several movies and books now.

Despite it's failure at the time it was released, I can say that it is a decently made psychological thriller with melodrama neatly knitted into the plot. The shadow and light play by the cinematographer definitely adds to the chilly part of the plot. Stanwyck slaps in the face of society who don’t care for a single woman's opinion with her brilliant acting.

It does have a few issues with the logic, but there is some great performance by all the cast members. All in all it is a decent film noir to watch on any day.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. An adaptation was broadcasted in January 1956 by Lux Video Theater with Audrey Totter, Onslow Stevens and Paul Langton in leading roles.

b. Unlike other films of the time, we see a product placement in the film. The W&J Sloan Company in Beverly Hills supplied all the furniture and set decorations for the film. It is also credited for it in the film. Established in 1843, the company went out of business in 1985.

c. George Sanders and Gary Merrill also starred in the 1950 American drama film All About Eve.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. Shouldn’t cops have seen the drag marks across the hallway or in Richter's home since they come to his apartment right after he disposes off the body into an empty apartment next to his and doesn’t have time to vacuum the carpet and erase them?

b. It is very clear that a body double was used for Stanwyck when she is seen standing by her car and watching Sanders' Richter pulled away. 

c. Cheryl looks to the right of Richter's apartment to find the empty apartment. But Richter had gone to the apartment to his left which was empty where he disposes off the body. Again later when Cheryl comes to check on an empty apartment, the rental office shows him the apartment left to Richter's. 

d. Cheryl and Richter have had never met before until the moment they see each other in the police station. Yet he addresses her by her name. 

e. The article about the murdered girl in the newspaper only has the top paragraph about her, and the rest of it is something related to the stock market. 

f. The curtains of Richter's apartment are drawn open when Cheryl sees him from her apartment. But when she goes to meet him in her apartment, the curtains are drawn close, and nowhere we see him getting out of his chair to close them. 

g. The address in the newspaper of the victim is given as 2401 Ocean Road. However when the detectives arrive the apartment number is seen as 666.

h. When Cheryl runs up the construction building there are not many cars and only a few spectators, but when she looks down from the top, there are hundreds of spectators. Clearly a stock footage of a much earlier film was used here.


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