Cast & Crew
Fred Morrow, a Los Angeles real estate agent, gets off the freeway in an East L.A. neighborhood and makes a phone call at a café frequented by teenagers. While on the phone, he witnesses the fatal stabbing of Emelio Sanchez by gang leader William L. Tompkins, known as "Cowboy," who found Emelio dancing with his flirtatious girl friend, Ruby. When none of the many neighborhood witnesses come forward to testify to the police, Fred steps forward and relates Emelio's dying words, "Cowboy did it." At police headquarters, Fred identifies Cowboy's mug shot to Detective Rafael Torno, who is fearful he will lose Fred's cooperation once he discovers the possible consequences of being the only witness to the murder. At the gang's hangout in a garage, Cowboy becomes frantic when he learns from a newspaper article that Emelio has died and that the district attorney has a mystery witness. After Ruby relates that she saw police officer Hurley write down Fred's name and address, "Muggles," a beat-talking drug addict, comes up with a plan to get Hurley's notebook. While Hurley is making his neighborhood rounds, "Apple," an African-American member of the gang, and the only one who was visibly pained when Emelio was stabbed, attacks Ruby and takes her purse, then runs into an alley and hides. When Hurley follows, Cowboy knocks him over the head with a pipe, and they take Hurley's notebook and gun. Cowboy calls Fred's home and learns from his young daughter that he and his wife Ann have gone to the supermarket. Apple tries to talk Cowboy out of killing Fred, but Cowboy orders him to go away and keep his mouth shut. The gang ram Fred and Ann in their car after they leave the supermarket and push them through an intersection, nearly causing an accident. Muggles then pulls a gun on Ann, while Cowboy warns Fred to tear up the affidavit. Fred reports the incident to Torno, who arranges police protection for the Morrows. That evening, Cowboy phones and gives Fred until midnight to rip up the affidavit, or else, he says, his wife and children will die. When a note tied to a rock is thrown through their living room window, Fred prepares to take his crying children and Ann to a motel, but they find that their car has been vandalized and the tires slashed. When the police arrive, Fred expresses his anger. Meanwhile, Torno goes to see Apple, whom he once arrested with Cowboy, but Apple denies being with Cowboy that day. At ten minutes to twelve, Cowboy phones Fred, who tells him to go to hell. Ann becomes hysterical, yelling that the gang will slit their throats. As Cowboy and the gang prepare to torch the Morrows' house with kerosene, Apple comes to the garage asking for money so that he can leave town. Torno and the police, who have followed Apple, surprise the gang, but Cowboy escapes in a stolen Jaguar and leads the police on a chase through Los Angeles streets and freeways. After eluding them by turning the wrong way up an exit ramp, Cowboy drives over an embankment. Torno catches him on foot and subdues him. Meanwhile, Apple's mother interrupts him as he is packing to tell him that Muggles, Ruby and another gang member, "Magician," have come for him. When Apple tells his mother that he is leaving to take a job in San Diego, she indignantly says that although she scrubs floors for a living, she is not a fool, but he asks her to believe him and she says she does. Magician, a racist, hits Apple, whom they accuse of purposely leading the police to the garage. When Muggles pulls a gun on him, Ruby takes it away, saying she believes Apple. That night, Fred identifies Cowboy through a one-way glass at the police station. The next day, Ruby decides to kidnap the Morrows' children. Apple is aghast, but the others agree to her plan. As Fred is about to testify, Ruby attacks Ann in the courthouse hallway. When Fred learns about the attack, he testifies he was mistaken in his identification of Cowboy. Meanwhile, on the playground at the children's school, Muggles locates the Morrows' son and pulls a gun. Apple hits his arm as Muggles shoots, wounding the boy. As they drive off, Apple rolls out of the moving car. Muggles sees him run to Fred's house and tells Cowboy, now free on bail. When Fred finds Apple at the Morrow home, Fred slugs him and makes a racist remark, then tries to provoke him into a fight. Apple asks help to reach Torno, but Fred taunts him, saying facetiously that he should tell the newspapers he is underprivileged, fatherless, hungry, lonely or mentally ill, so that they will protect him. When Fred calls him "boy," Apple is about to leave, when the gang shows up. Cowboy pulls a switchblade, and Fred tries to protect Apple. The gang make a circle around the two, and Cowboy asks Fred why he is risking his life for a "nigger." After another racist remark, they fight, and Fred knocks the knife away. Torno then arrives with the police, who capture the gang. Fred tells him that now he has two key witnesses.
Will J. White
Mary Alan Hokanson
Pandro S. Berman
George W. Davis
Donald C. Klune
Harold E. Wellman
Key Witness (1960)
"Every successful picture I've made has been based on fact," Karlson once said. Although this film was adapted from a novel and not a true story, it might have been taken directly from front-page headlines. America's inner cities at the time were becoming increasingly dangerous, and frightened citizens moved through the streets with their heads down, determined not to get involved for fear of attracting the kind of violence experienced by the characters in this story, an attitude that would reach its most deadly and shameful proportions in the 1964 murder of New York resident Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death while 38 of her neighbors watched from their apartment windows. "Key Witness was the highest acclaimed picture in New York because [it] was happening on the street at that time," Karlson later remarked in a 1973 interview. "They were mugging them in Central Park then. That's what the story was all about. People would not get involved."
By the early 1960s, Karlson had built a fairly solid career on tough, tightly constructed action melodramas that were merely successful B pictures of their day - popular but quickly forgotten Ð but have since been critically re-appraised: Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), The Phenix City Story (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957). He began his directing career as an assembly-line filmmaker at low-budget studio Monogram Pictures, taking whatever assignments he was given. But with Black Gold (1947), a project he talked Anthony Quinn into, he got his first real chance to infuse a film with his own vision. According to Karlson, Monogram was so impressed with the final product, they decided to ramp up the studio's production schedule, changing its name to Allied Artists and ushering in a new, more ambitious slate of films.
By the time of Key Witness, Karlson had worked his way over to MGM, where his producer, Pandro S. Berman (the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO are among his credits), was so displeased with the picture he had his name removed. Despite the success of Key Witness, Karlson, who was rarely singled out for critical praise or notice, knocked out a string of unambitious B-movies over the next decade, among them Kid Galahad (1962), the Elvis Presley remake of a 1937 Humphrey Bogart flick and two Matt Helm spy spoofs starring Dean Martin (The Silencers (1966), The Wrecking Crew, 1969). He finally achieved major success and respect with his runawayWalking Tall (1973). However, he made only one other film (Framed, 1975) before his death of cancer in 1985.
The leading role of the besieged suburbanite is subtly handled by Jeffrey Hunter, a handsome young star who prior to this had appeared in a number of John Ford films, including The Searchers (1956). The boyish looking actor's biggest success came a bit later, playing no less than Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961), often jokingly referred to by critics as "I Was a Teenage Jesus," although its star was 33 at the time. His career never again reached the heights of that role, and he died suddenly at the age of 42 from a cerebral hemorrhage following a head trauma.
At least one member of the violent street gang, however, fared much better in his career - Dennis Hopper as the sadistic leader. Also in the gang (as the only black member) was Texas-born Johnny Nash, who had a hit song in 1972 with "I Can See Clearly Now," a reggae tune written by Jimmy Cliff. And as the gang "girl," Susan Harrison made her only other film appearance after her promising start as Burt Lancaster's emotionally crippled sister in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Her current claim to fame is as the mother of Darva Conger, the "winner" in FOX TV's controversial reality show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire in February 2000.
Director: Phil Karlson
Producers: Kathryn Hereford, Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Alfred Brenner, Sidney Michaels, based on the book by Frank Kane
Cinematography: Harold E. Wellman
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, George W. Davis
Original Music: Charles Wolcott
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Fred Morrow), Pat Crowley (Ann Morrow), Dennis Hopper (William "Cowboy" Tomkins), Susan Harrison (Ruby), Johnny Nash (Apple).
by Rob Nixon
Key Witness (1960)
Although the film is listed in the copyright register under the number "LP15382," that number is incorrect, and the correct number has not been identified. The opening credits contain the following statement: "The story you are about to see is fictional; but all good fiction is based on some truth; and the truth of this story is, that it May happen every day throughout the entire world. It can happen to you now in your town. If you fail to give your support to the laws you make; give your strength to justice, to decency and to the innocent. Law without enforcement is only a word. Enforcement without your help is not possible." The statement ends with the signature of Stanley Mosk, Attorney General, State of California.
According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in April 1958, when M-G-M submitted material on the proposed film to the PCA, officials stated "we do not feel that we can approve a picture based on this material. A year ago...we agreed that this office would not approve any more sadistically conceived juvenile delinquency pictures, which were filled with violence and savagery. We so informed producers generally, and since then there have been no pictures of this type presented." A script dated September 3, 1959 was similarly rejected as "unacceptable under the Code," and PCA officials informed the studio, "this story is filled with an accumulation of violence, savagery, and sadism to such a degree as to seem almost orgiastic." They warned of "an ominous background of public wrath" against such pictures and stated they could not "approve a film even remotely containing the amount of arrogant aggressiveness and anti-social violence which this script contains." The PCA demanded that "some scenes of the innate health and weight of society would have to be developed so that it would not seem to be ineffectual or easily violable by insolent, psychotic hoodlums as in the present script."
Among other desired changes, the PCA asked the studio not to dramatize the first killing, to eliminate an attempt by the gang to run down "Apple" with a car, and to cut out a telephone threat to "sexually abuse Morrow's daughter." The studio complied with all these requests. In addition, PCA officials objected to the depiction of "Muggles" as a "dope addict" and the portrayal of "Ruby" as "a shameless little nymphomaniac," commenting, "The description of the way she dresses, walks, provokes men sexually, and particularly how she throws herself on the back seat of the automobile with her legs deliberately open in coaxing Cowboy, is nothing short of abominable." On October 2, 1959, following the first three days of rushes, although a number of changes had been made or promised, the PCA warned M-G-M that they still could not guarantee that the final film would be acceptable and cautioned, "Proceeding with it under these conditions is a gamble pure and simple on the part of the Studio."
According to an Hollywood Reporter news item, at the time of production, Pandro S. Berman was to be listed as the film's line producer, but when the film was released a year later, Kathryn Hereford, "for many years [Berman's] girl Friday," who married Berman following the film's completion, received the credit. July 1959 Hollywood Reporter news items state that Robert Stack and Lee Remick were both considered for roles in the picture. According to a September 29, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Inger Stevens, who was on loan to M-G-M from Paramount, was suspended for refusing a role in the film. A July 22, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that M-G-M pushed back the production date for the film in hopes that Anthony Franciosa would be available; however, he did not appear in the film. A September 17, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Darrell Jensen to the cast, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter reported in September 1958 that Larry Marcus was to do the screenplay, but Marcus' participation in the final film has not been confirmed.
Portions of the film were shot on location in various sections of Los Angeles, CA. According to the pressbook, the freeway scenes were shot in five nights between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. on an unopened segment of the Santa Ana Freeway.
Reviews generally praised the film, although Hollywood Reporter and Variety criticized its element of racism. The Hollywood Reporter review stated, "It is done pointlessly and to no particular advantage." Variety commented, "Only important flaw is an unnecessary scene in which references are made [Johnny] Nash's race, Negro. It's been established earlier that the Negro's the only decent one in the gang, so adding the realtor's racial prejudices into the conflict then promptly resolving them-all in a few final minutes-is dramatically unsound."
Released in United States Fall October 1960
Pandro S Berman was the original producer, but because he wasn't happy with the final result, he struck his name from the credits and gave Kathryn Hereford, his associate producer, the full producer credit.
Released in United States Fall October 1960