A woman's sanity comes into question, after she claims to have witnessed a murder from her apartment window.
In an odd coincidence, 1954 spawned two movies about innocent apartment dwellers who happen to gaze out a window and, purely by chance, espy a nefarious deed in a neighboring building. One of the films quickly captured the public's fancy and became a bona fide classic, while the other barely caused a blip on the box office radar. The classic, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock's masterfully constructed homage to peeping toms, 'Rear Window,' and the rightfully forgotten stepchild is Roy Rowland's 'Witness to Murder,' an intriguing yet wildly improbable woman-in-jeopardy thriller that tries hard to be intelligent, but never quite manages it. Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders give the pedestrian material their all, but once this run-of-the-mill exercise in suspense goes off the rails, even their considerable talents can’t get it back on track.
Despite an A-list cast, 'Witness to Murder' is strictly B-movie fare. Hastily assembled, with bargain basement production values and a stark look, the film strives to display a noir-like grittiness, but possesses little artistic distinction. The cardboard characters are as black and white as the cinematography, yet with none of the compelling gray areas that might lend them depth and humanity. Such ambiguity and complexity often help elevate uninspired yarns, but 'Witness to Murder,' like a dime store novel, values action above all.
The film begins promisingly enough. Cheryl Draper (Stanwyck) is a single career woman of a certain age who lives in a modest apartment complex in Los Angeles. One night, the howling wind awakens her, and when she gets up to close the window, she happens to look into a flat across the street and sees a man strangling a woman to death. Shocked and horrified, she notifies the police, but by the time they arrive and question the suspect, Albert Richter (Sanders), he's managed to drag the body to an adjacent vacant apartment and calmly acts as if nothing except his sleep has been disturbed. Richter slyly suggests his accuser might have awakened from a nightmare and confused fantasy with reality, and Detective Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) readily agrees.
Outraged and offended, a defiant Cheryl sticks to her story, but with no hard evidence to back it up, she, too, begins to harbor some doubts. To settle her troubled mind and satisfy her intense curiosity, Cheryl, much like the characters in 'Rear Window,' embarks on an investigation of her own, and discovers Richter is an author with disturbingly controversial views on death and the expendability of the human race. Richter, of course, resents her snooping, and cleverly turns the tables by constructing an elaborate ruse to convince the authorities Cheryl is a delusional, deranged harpy who’s unfit to live in civilized society. Before anyone can say Sigmund Freud, they corroborate his bogus diagnosis, and with head-spinning alacrity, Cheryl is carted off to a psycho ward in a mental institution.
But wait, there's more! It’s soon revealed Richter is a Nazi – yes, a Nazi! – who secretly plans to revive the regime and build the Fourth Reich right there in Los Angeles. (Too bad he didn't align himself with those boys from Brazil!) Can Cheryl claw her way out of the loony bin in time to help Detective Mathews bring him to justice, or will she meet the same grisly fate as the inconvenient woman who was Richter’s first victim? All this leads to a frantic and clichéd climax, followed by an ending that gives new meaning to the word abrupt.
Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, 'Witness to Murder' zips along, but that’s part of its problem. More character development and a more measured approach toward discrediting Cheryl's story, defiling her reputation, and dismantling her confidence – much like the methodical manner in which Charles Boyer drives Ingrid Bergman insane in ‘Gaslight’ – might make the proceedings more palatable. Stanwyck enjoys some fine introspective moments as she tries to evaluate her level of sanity, but there aren't enough of these reality checks in Chester Erskine's script to create a plausible scenario. Rowland, to his credit, keeps things taut, but pacing alone doesn't create a successful thriller. Subtlety and nuance are also required to enhance mood and tension, and there's very little of that on display.
Despite her reputation as a Hollywood diva, Stanwyck loved to get down and dirty, embracing physical roles with passion, commitment, and admirable energy. She often performed her own stunts (Stanwyck would have made a formidable action heroine in our current day and age), and though other films grant her greater leverage in that department, she gets a decent workout here, especially in the frantic lead-up to the rooftop denouement. Some mild histrionics notwithstanding, her performance rings true and her naturalness somewhat softens the impact of the preposterous plot twists.
Sanders specialized in villains throughout his career, with his debonair demeanor often belying his characters' underlying nastiness, and he brings his typical elegant disdain to Richter. In a bland and thankless part, Merrill does his best (although his actions and line readings uncomfortably recall his most recognizable role, that of Bill Sampson in 'All About Eve'), and the future Maytag repairman, Jesse White, enlivens a few scenes as Mathews' right-hand man.
'Witness to Murder' will never amount to anything more than a poor man's (or woman’s) 'Rear Window,' but thanks to the magnetism of its stars, it's entertaining enough. Stanwyck is always fascinating to watch, and though she's far from her best here, she still gives us our money's worth. Without her, 'Witness to Murder' would be far less interesting, and maybe not interesting at all.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Witness to Murder' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promors precede it.
Kino has been producing some pretty spiffy classic movie transfers of late, but unfortunately 'Witness to Murder' can't be added to the list. An independent production released through United Artists, Rowland's film probably hasn't received much TLC over the years, and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering magnifies all of the source material's flaws. Heavy grain predominates, obscuring a lot of fine detail, and contrast and clarity aren't up to snuff. Some overhead long shots are downright blurry, and a fair amount of speckling and a few faint white vertical lines dot the print. Black levels are solid and shadow delineation is fairly good, but there's not a lot of gray scale variance, which lends the picture a flat, lifeless look. John Alton's naturalistic cinematography lacks pizzazz, and close-ups err on the soft side. Sadly, 'Witness to Murder' will never merit the restoration it needs and deserves, so this is probably the best transfer we'll ever get. Fans will be disappointed, but it's still nice to have this title in high definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track supplies serviceable sound with a minimum of defects. Some mild surface noise can be heard during quiet scenes, but the mix is free of any hiss, pops, or crackles. Ambient effects, such as the howling wind, come through cleanly, and sonic accents, like footsteps crunching against the pavement, are crisp and distinct. Good fidelity helps the melodramatic music score make a statement, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend.
The only extra is the film's two-minute original theatrical trailer, which is narrated by Stanwyck and presented in standard definition.
Some nifty moments and stellar performances from Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, and Gary Merrill boost the appeal of 'Witness to Murder,' but its melodramatic story and presentation keep it mired in the murky world of B-movie film noir. Though the picture's premise resembles the incomparable 'Rear Window' (released the same year), the similarities end there. Director Roy Rowland is no Hitchcock, and his film lacks the nuance and intelligence necessary to set it apart from a typical genre entry. Kino's Blu-ray presentation features average video and audio transfers and almost zero supplements, yet this release should still appeal to fans of Stanwyck and Sanders, as well as classics and noir aficionados.