Witness to Murder


1h 23m 1954
Witness to Murder

Brief Synopsis

A woman fights to convince the police that she witnessed a murder.

Film Details

Genre
Action
Crime
Thriller
Release Date
Apr 1954
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Chester Erskine Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Los Angeles, California, USA

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.75 : 1

Synopsis

One night, when Cheryl Draper wakens and gets out of bed to close her bedroom window, she sees a man, Albert Richter, strangling a young woman to death in an apartment across the street. Cheryl phones the police, but before Lt. Lawrence Mathews and Sgt. Eddie Vincent arrive to interview Richter, he hides the body in an unoccupied apartment next door and pretends to have been asleep. After they find nothing to incriminate Richter, Larry suggests to Cheryl that she may have dreamed it all, but she is adamant that she saw the murder. The next day, as she leaves for her job as an interior decorator at a Beverly Hills store, Cheryl sees Richter loading a large trunk into a station wagon. Later, she buys a small pair of binoculars and, while scanning Richter's apartment, notices the empty one next door. Pretending to be interested in renting the apartment, she asks the resident manager to show it to her and notices scuff marks on the floor. When she asks to view a furnished apartment, the manager shows her Richter's, where she finds and removes a pair of earrings. When she shows her find to Larry, he tells her that Richter has just phoned to report that the earrings had been stolen from his apartment and that they had belonged to his wife, who died in Germany in 1943. Cheryl is still at police headquarters when Richter arrives to claim the earrings, and she directly accuses him of the murder, but he emphatically denies it. As he leaves, Richter tells Larry that he thinks Cheryl is mentally unbalanced. However, Larry, somewhat suspicious, has Richter's background investigated and later is able to tell Cheryl that Richter is a former Nazi, now a writer, and is currently romancing a rich widow. Larry is concerned about Cheryl's preoccupation with what she believes she witnessed and invites her to dinner. Richter sees them drive away and mails a letter to himself. A few hours later, Cheryl reads a newspaper account of the discovery of a woman's body in Griffith Park, but Larry tells her that the police are unable to link it to Richter and begs her to give up her obsession. At night, when Cheryl is working in her apartment, Richter arrives to complain about a letter he has received from her, accusing him of murder, and plants the idea in Cheryl's mind that she is ill. Cheryl then traces Larry and rushes to see him, while Richter returns to her apartment and, wearing gloves, types a letter on her typewriter stating that she saw him commit the murder. After Larry is unable to help her, Cheryl feels that she should perhaps see a doctor. Later, Larry is summoned to Capt. Donnelly's office, where Richter has brought the letters he claims Cheryl has been sending him. Although Larry finds it hard to believe that she wrote the letters, he is ordered to bring Cheryl in. When Donnelly produces Cheryl's typewriter and establishes its use in writing one of the letters, Cheryl becomes hysterical and Donnelly orders her committed to a city hospital. She wakes up there in a ward with three unstable women and is later examined by a psychiatrist, who claims to know her case intimately. She is now convinced that Richter did not commit murder and that she must have written the letters. After Larry arrives with a writ for her release and drives her home, she tells him she thinks they should not see each other again. Later, when Cheryl sees Richter buying several newspapers that reveal the identity of the murdered girl, she begins to realize that when Richter visited her he could have left the door off the latch and reentered to type the letters after she went out. She phones Larry, but he is not receptive to her latest theory. Cheryl then goes to Richter's apartment, where he willingly confesses the crime to her, but reminds her that she has been officially diagnosed as unstable and anything she says will not be believed. When Richter shouts in German, claiming that he alone has the key for which history awaits and that the girl he murdered put in jeopardy the future of the world, Cheryl realizes that he is a totally deranged maniac and flees. At police headquarters, Cheryl tells Larry that Richter confessed to her, but Larry can do nothing due to the lack of evidence. However, Larry decides to trace the murdered girl's background and interviews several of her neighbors, unsuccessfully showing them a photograph of Richter from one of his book jackets. He then decides to check the victim's apartment, where he finds a copy of one of Richter's obscure books. Meanwhile, Cheryl has driven home contemplating suicide to find Richter waiting in her apartment with a suicide note he has written for her on her typewriter. Richter then attempts to throw Cheryl out of a window, but is interrupted by the arrival of a policewoman Larry has assigned to look after Cheryl. Cheryl flees, pursued by both Richter and the policewoman, and runs through the night streets to the construction site of a multi-story building and climbs up to the top, followed by Richter. A crowd gathers and attracts Larry on his way to visit Cheryl, and he and several policemen race up to the top floor. When Richter corners Cheryl, she falls onto a lower platform ledge. After Larry and Richter fight and Richter falls to his death, Larry and others are able to pull Cheryl to safety just as the ledge gives way. Larry and Cheryl embrace, then walk off together.

Film Details

Genre
Action
Crime
Thriller
Release Date
Apr 1954
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Chester Erskine Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Los Angeles, California, USA

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.75 : 1

Articles

Witness to Murder


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).
BW-82M.

by Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES:
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
IMDB
Witness To Murder

Witness to Murder

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). BW-82M. by Stephanie Zacharek SOURCES: 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 IMDB

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

An adaptation of this film, starring Audrey Totter, Onslow Stevens and Paul Langton, was featured on Lux Video Theatre in January 1956.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Spring April 1954

Released in United States Spring April 1954