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In the 1954 Witness to Murder, Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who, unable to sleep one night, looks across the courtyard from her apartment and sees a man choking a woman to death. The man is a pompous though obscure writer - he's played by George Sanders - and there's no doubt about what Stanwyck has witnessed. In the next scene we see Sanders surveying the body of the young woman he's just killed, wondering what on Earth he should do with it. Stanwyck, meanwhile, has called the police; they interview Sanders half-heartedly, concluding that there's no way such a well-mannered, urbane citizen could be guilty of murder. Stanwyck, a career woman of obvious intelligence, keeps insisting that Sanders is a killer: Not only does police lieutenant Gary Merrill refuse to believe her (even as he woos her romantically); but Sanders knows very well what he did, and he sets out to convince the authorities that Stanwyck is insane. He's so successful at it that he has her temporarily committed.
If the setup sounds at least a little like another movie released that year, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, there's a good reason for it. The picture, based on a script by Chester Erskine (who also produced the movie), was designed to compete with the film Hitchcock was preparing over at Paramount, so many of the similarities are perhaps intentional. Witness to Murder was released on April 15, 1954, and while it received moderately positive reviews (particularly for the performances), it of course ended up as an also-ran to Rear Window, which opened less than a month later. The latter picture was a box-office hit, and earned Oscar® nominations for director, screenplay (by John Michael Hayes) and cinematography (by Robert Burks).
But Witness to Murder, directed by Roy Rowland, brings with it its own set of shivery pleasures, not the least of which are the performances by Stanwyck and Sanders. Sanders appears to be having a great deal of fun with this character, rolling his r's with mischievous glee, making sure everyone knows how secure his place in the Universe is. (Don't miss the moment when he launches into a tirade about the inferiority of weakling human beings - in German, no less!) The performance is slightly cartoony, though perhaps that's just another word for "stylized." In his scenes with Stanwyck, Sanders displays a veneer of cool, vaguely sexual menace. His character is the kind of guy who's interested in women only as playthings, and he takes devilish pleasure into turning Stanwyck into his own tortured, cowering mouse.
Stanwyck, cowering? Well, just a little. Specific plot points of Witness to Murder don't make much sense, and the story leans a little too heavily - even for a movie made in the 1950s - on the "She's just an hysterical woman!" routine. But Stanwyck, true to her nature - and her astonishing acting skills - plays even the most unbelievable moments with so much conviction that you fear for her, even though you know everything will turn out all right in the end. On the surface, Stanwyck may appear to be playing this character rather timidly, giving in all too easily to the male characters who try to dominate her. But as Ella Smith points out in her book Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, there's subtlety even in the way Stanwyck yields to the male status quo: "When...she is subjected to the questions of a psychiatrist with an impersonal and even insulting approach, she balances the character's doubts in herself with an awareness of what she must do to convince him of her sanity - showing that she understands him far better than he does her (and showing how many facets of character Stanwyck can convey at one time)."
Stanwyck clearly knew what she was doing. As Axel Madsen points out in her book Stanwyck,, the actress had read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which outlined with cool clarity the circumstances of women in the modern world (the modern world of the 1950s, that is). Madsen notes that although by the 1950s Stanwyck was a veteran star and financially self-sufficient, the characters she was offered hardly fit the description of what we might call strong, independent women: "Flaunting her white hair and her small, shapely body, she lent her sneer and throaty laughter to wayward, evil women who, by the fade-out, were usually dead, unless they shared the reins with the one man who dared stand up."
Stanwyck's character in Witness to Murder is a single working woman: She has a job as an interior decorator at a department store, but she's an artist as well - her apartment s adorned with a painting she did herself in bold, aggressive strokes, and at one point, distracted and disturbed by the murder she's just witnessed, she renders a sketch in ominous, dark tones. These sketches, perhaps, are supposed to indicate the character's possible insanity; instead, they speak of a woman who knows herself quite well, an individual with an agile mind and an inquisitive spirit. There are moments when Stanwyck does cower like a timid mouse, particularly when she's under Sanders' ruthless scrutiny. But no matter how many times the male characters in Witness to Murder tell her to just relax and forget what she thinks she saw, Stanwyck stands firm - there's resoluteness even to the set of her shoulders, and to the frown of consternation she so often wears. Strong, multi-dimensional female characters were a rarity in the 1950s; Witness to Murder suggests that Stanwyck sought to create some for herself, by reading - and acting -- between the lines.
Producer: Chester Erskine
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Chester Erskine (original screenplay); Nunnally Johnson (uncredited)
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: William Ferrari
Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Cheryl Draper), George Sanders (Albert Richter), Gary Merrill (Lawrence Mathews), Jesse White (Eddie Vincent), Harry Shannon (Captain Donnelly), Claire Carleton (The Blonde), Lewis Martin (Psychiatrist), Dick Elliott (Apartment Manager), Harry Tyler (Charlie), Juanita Moore (Negress).
by Stephanie Zacharek
Axel Madsen, Stanwyck, Harper Collins, 1994
Homer Dickens and Frank Capra, The Films of Barbara Stanwyck, Citadel Press, 1987
Ella Smith, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, Crown Publishers, 1973