“Witness to Murder” (1954) presents Barbara Stanwyck in the role of an intelligent woman no one believes.
Unlike the adventure in “Rear Window”, also made in the same year, where James Stewart slowly comes to the suspicion of a murder committed and must puzzle out the proof, “Witness to Murder” begins in all film noir garish glory, with a clap of thunder, a dark and stormy night, and the sight of a woman being strangled just as soon as we get the main titles out of the way. There is no doubt about the murder being committed or that George Sanders is the murderer. The story is about how Stanwyck cannot convince the police about what she saw.
Her role is a bit of a departure from the typical 1950s hysterical woman roles (though she does have a brief fling at raising her voice at the cops which puts her in a hospital psychiatric ward for observation). Her character is a single professional woman, an artist and interior decorator. She is sensible, intelligent, has a fetching wardrobe of flattering full skirts and tailored jackets, which like her character are not ostentatious in any way but both chic and reserved. She is a quiet person, contained, who though she dines alone at drugstore counters, seems content in her quiet life. She listens to classical music when she putters alone at home. We are told a man she loved died in the war, but she gives no indication that she is looking for a replacement.
We see her at work, comfortable at her drawing table. She has a drawing table in her apartment as well, and her expressionistic paintings hang on the wall, passionate and somewhat dark. The doctor who later interrogates her will infer that they reflect psychosis. People watching this film in 1954 must have been deterred by it from ever seeking help from either the police or from mental health professionals, so callously is she treated.
Her world turns upside down when she sees the murder. World weary Gary Merrill is the responding police lieutenant who investigates, and finding nothing, writes Miss Stanwyck off as a woman who had a bad dream. Her indignation spurs her to do a little of her own investigating, and with each new call to Merrill to report more information, she is told in pleasant, but always condescending tones that she is obsessed over nothing. He spends much of movie telling her to just take it easy.
George Sanders plays the villain with such suave and clever and contrived innocence that perhaps if we had not seen him commit the crime at the beginning of the movie, we would not believe her either. As an ingenious former Nazi who was “de-nazified in court” and emigrated to the US after the war, we might look for some explanation as to why his speech sounds more Oxford than Leipzig. Nevertheless, he is so quick and crafty baiting Miss Stanwyck, reveling that no one believes her, and paints her as a looney before the police.
It is interesting that Merrill’s character, in relating Sanders’ Nazi history to Stanwyck, does it in such a ho-hum manner. This is, I think, not a reflection on Merrill’s abilities as an actor as much as it reflects society of the early 1950s. We see this even in the brilliant “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) where the post-war years shifted from the righteous calls for revenge of the war years to the let’s just move on with our lives attitudes that let so many Nazis escape. It was impossible to punish them all, anyway. Even by 1954, the war was old news.
When Merrill bluntly comments on Stanwyck’s fiancé never making it back from his last bomber mission and she seems to slightly flinch in distress, he remarks laconically, “Sorry. I didn’t know it still hurt.” Apparently, she was supposed have gotten over that a long time ago.
When Sanders at the end of the film reveals his vitriolic, hate-filled ubermenschen philosophy in a soapbox rant, it is almost comic. How frightening his rage would have appeared in a 1940s film. Now only ten years later it seems archaic and quaint. We have a short attention span. We have left the lessons of war far behind us. Don’t believe a Nazi is dangerous because he writes books which map out evil intentions. Don’t believe a woman crying murder. Neither is plausible.
The role is a good one for Barbara Stanwyck, but it is unfortunate that more was not made of her character’s sensibilities and her artistic talents. In one scene we see her absentmindedly sketching the murder at her drawing board as if to come to terms with the horrible act. In another scene she remarks to Merrill about Sanders’ face, “The smile and the eyes don’t go together. They look at you, but they don’t see you.” It’s something an artist would notice. Instead of playing up her character’s approach to the crime as an observant artist, the script merely emphasizes that all her suspicions are based only on women’s intuition, which of course the police scoff at, and Sanders abuses.
We might expect an eventual romance between Merrill and Stanwyck, because they begin to see each other socially, but there doesn’t appear to be much chemistry between them. More than his disbelief in her accusations, which is pardonable without concrete proof, is the almost overbearing condescension of his attitude towards her emotional and mental state. Finally, this is culminated in her being sent to a psychiatric ward for observation, where the film takes a bizarre turn, suddenly becoming “Ladies They Talk About” (1933). (One of her fellow inmates, played by Adeline De Walt Reynolds, will be discussed on Thursday.)
Another odd twist is the chase scene at the end, prompted by a severe policewoman who calls for onlookers to stop Stanwyck from running away because she is insane. She knows that Stanwyck is insane because George Sanders told her so. Everybody believes George Sanders.
Miss Stanwyck attempts to escape up a construction site with Sanders hot on her heels, along with a street crowd. Eventually Merrill shows up to help lift her off a ledge. Since Stanwyck enjoyed performing her own stunts, perhaps for her this fun bit made up for the weaknesses of the story.
Very much a film of its day, it accurately sloughs off the last of the World War II sense of urgency and commitment to seek justice. It makes reference to television (and perhaps radio) when Merrill’s partner playfully hums the well-known opening notes to the “Dragnet” theme. The African-American actress Juanita Moore, who would win an Academy Award nomination for her role in “Imitation of Life” (1959), appearing here as one of the psychiatric ward patients, is referred in the credits only as “Negress.”
Sometimes it actually is better to just move on and away from such as this. But first you have to look back.