Noirvember Review: ‘Witness to Murder’
Every November fans of classic cinema celebrate one of the great genres of filmdom, the film noir. These beloved films ensure fans get their fill of; gritty streets, tough detectives, dark alleys, mysterious femme fatales, seedy bars, villainous gangsters, and a unique moody style. This month I will be looking at some of the great noir films of all time for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
One of the crappy realities about the movie business is that when women begin to age like normal people the amount of work tends to dry up. Even when you are Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most gifted performers to ever to step in front of a camera. By 1954 the years of starring in classic A-pictures like Baby Face, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and Christmas in Connecticut, seemed behind her. As she tried to recalibrate her career for whatever the next stage would be, the actress found herself starring in a low budget thriller from United Artist that has sadly faded into obscurity. But, those who have seen it have declared that Witness to Murder is a far better movie than expected with many story elements that seem ahead of their time.
This movie begins with a punch as right from the start, it is a dark and stormy night and Stanwyck’s Cheryl Draper calls the police upon witnessing a murder across the street. Two lazy detectives answer the call and after meeting Albert Richert, the seemingly charming owner of said across-the-street apartment, they go about their way. To them, a call from a woman, a single woman at that, is nothing to get too worried over, assuming it was just her nerves in the storm getting the better of her. However, something did happen, and Cheryl takes I upon herself to get to the bottom of it. What she learns is that during the war Richert was a Nazi officer skilled the art of intimidation and psychological warfare. When he discovers that she is onto him, Albert begins his own campaign with the authorities to characterize her as a woman in the throes of hysteria. This combined with the fact that she keeps rebuffing the advances of the detective “investigating” the matter Cheryl is thrown through the wringer. At one point she even ends up committed to a mental hospital. While she may be a humble artist going up against a master at the art of war, Cheryl refuses to back down from the murderer across the street.
As previously mentioned, Witness to Murder is a film which unfortunately has faded into obscurity. Less than a month after its initial release, Alfred Hitchcock gave the world his own little film about someone witnessing a murder out of their back window in Rear Window. Of course, Rear Window was a box office and critical smash which is still revered as an all-time great thriller eclipsing any hope of Witness to Murder gaining traction. This is a shame because aside from initial spark kicking off the story being more-or-less the same the two movies are drastically different. Though the famously conservative Barbara Stanwyck would probably bristle at this, but Witness to Murder has a strong feminist slant to it. This movie may have been set in the 1950’s, but the idea of people in authority brushing off women seeking justice sadly rings true even today. Not only does Cheryl Draper have to contend with the usual noir plot of solving a violent crime but has to do so in the face of a patriarchal authority system that ranges from disbelieving her to being downright hostile towards the artist. For my money, this element of the story makes Witness to Murder just as powerful now over half of a century later, which is tragedy.
The driving force of Witness to Murder is the back-and-forth between Cheryl and the Hitler-following Albert Richert. As expected, Barbara Stanwyck is fantastic as if anyone had any doubt otherwise. She makes Cheryl the perfect protagonist for the audience to get behind an underdog who sticks to her guns in the face of unfathomable obstacles. Making her character even more sympathetic is George Sanders’ turn as Albert. Thanks to Operation Paperclip, during this time, a number of unapologetic members of the Nazi party were given new lives in the US. This was provided they provide some scientific or strategic value against the new national enemy in the Soviet Union. A cold Machiavellian master of psychological warfare like Albert would have been exactly the type of villain Uncle Sam’s shady servants would have wanted. Throughout Sanders’ career he has shown himself quite capable of portraying a suave, yet dangerous villain, most notably the tiger Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. In this film, the Oscar winner adds a layer of menace to his baddie that is downright terrifying. Whenever he and Stanwyck share a scene, the audience can feel the tension and dread radiating from the screen. To say things were one-sided would be an understatement, as Cheryl constantly finds herself three steps behind her antagonist.
The man behind the camera, Roy Rowland is a bit of surprise as, with few exceptions, his filmography does not really stand out. A true workman of the movie industry, he worked a number of job behind the-scenes before getting bumped to the big chair. Rowland was by no stretch of the imagination an auteur, he was a solid studio director who took care of business. With Witness to Murder he greatly benefitted from working with cinematographer John Alton who creates a wonderfully bleak and moody atmosphere. While he is most known for his work on the classic musical, An American in Paris three years prior, Fulton built his reputation in the gritty world of Poverty Row noir. While Witness to Murder, was not the Hungarian-born cinematographer’s did some of the best work of his storied career . While everything in this film is drenched in darkness and shadows, he brings out a certain visual beauty that few others probably could.
On a regular basis films are given new leases on life as they are rediscovered by an audience more prepared for them than at the time of their release. One can only hope that Witness to Murder gets this same treatment soon. While it made little to no impact upon it’s initial upon its initial release, seen as the run-of-the-mill b-noir from the studio there is a deceptive depth to this picture. Both Stanwyck and Sanders deliver top-tier performances in a movie that slowly tightens its grip as the runtime rolls on.