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Sunday, 6 July 2008

Witness to Murder (1954)

Unable to sleep, Cheryl Draper witnesses a murder through her bedroom window. Albert Richter, across the way, has strangled a woman to death while neatly framed by his window panes. Naturally she rings the police but when they check Richter's apartment, there's no corpse and Richter is clever about hiding the odd bits of evidence that he realises are still hanging around. The police therefore believe that Draper, a single middle aged woman, was dreaming, and that the respected historian and author, Albert Richter, isn't guilty of anything. Given that this is 1954 and we have capable names involved, though, this becomes a real game of cat and mouse.

Draper investigates on her own and immediately comes up with circumstantial evidence to take to the police, but Richter heads her off at every step. Not only does he counter every accusation she makes, before she even makes them, but begins to fashion a case against her stalking him! The cleverest has to be the way he sends a threatening letter to himself, then confronts her with it to obtain a way to get into her apartment, which he revisits to type a string of them to take to the police to prove her insanity. The only real benefit she has on her side is a sympathetic cop, who believes that she dreamed the crime but wants to help.

This is the sort of clever film noir that we haven't seen for decades. The talent is palpable: the leads are Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders, with Gary Merrill as the cop, Lt Mathews. This is late Stanwyck, so she could bring elements of things like Sorry, Wrong Number to the part. Sanders was on familiar territory too, having played suave and sophisticated villains for a couple of decades and he could do that sort of thing in his sleep. Both are excellent. Merrill's is the face I don't know, though I know his name. He met Bette Davis when making All About Eve and spent the next decade married to her.

There's much to admire here, not least from the three leads, and humorous support from Jesse White, who was for 21 years the Maytag repairman. The story is strong and intelligent, the direction is solid and the music by Herschel Burke Gilbert is striking, outrageously so during the early credits. There are certainly flaws: the finale seems a little deliberately cinematic, for want of a better term, the clincher that changes Lt Mathew's mind is a little weak and the fact that he seems quite happy to effectively date a woman who he suspects of being mentally ill is a little difficult to take, but the vast swathe of the plot is interesting and insightful, maybe more so today when broad suppositions are easy.

I couldn't help but look up some connections, given that the opening sequence screams Rear Window. Was this a cheap and quick ripoff of the Hitchcock classic? Well no. It was actually released a few months beforehand (April 1954 for Witness to Murder, August 1954 for Rear Window) and while the opening is strikingly similar, the film develops on completely different lines and follows a different purpose. However, there is a predecessor to both: The Window, made in 1949, that features Bobby Driscoll as a nine year old boy who cries wolf, who is unable to convince anyone that he actually saw his neighbours commit a murder.

The link is Cornell Woolrich, who wrote a number of stories that became films, including The Boy Cried Murder, which became The Window, and It Had to Be Murder, which became Rear Window. It would seem that Woolrich, a talented and successful writer, knew what worked. If this film is successful on the basis that in the fifties women were both less believable than men because of their inherently emotional outlook and more vulnerable because of the weakness of their sex, how successful should The Window be, with a nine year old boy known for his tall tale telling? Nobody's going to believe him from moment one and he's as vulnerable as can be.

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