Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stubs – Witness to Murder

Witness to Murder (1954) Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill. Directed by Roy Rowland. Produced by Chester Erskine. Screenplay by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson (uncredited). Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Suspense

This film has B-Movie written all over it. While the cast is good: Barbara Stanwyck (the femme fatale from Double Indemnity (1944)) with George Sanders and Gary Merrill (both known for their work in All About Eve (1950)) and the premise, a single woman witnesses the brutal strangulation of another woman, is intriguing, it is the execution that holds this film back from being really good.

Stanwyck, who had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, was watching that career transition. At 47, she was a little old to be playing some of the roles that she had once been associated with, such as the Burlesque queen in Ball of Fire (1941) and seductress as she played in the aforementioned Double Indemnity. An Academy bridesmaid, Stanwyck had been nominated four times as Best Actress for her work in Stella Dallas (1937); Ball of Fire; Double Indemnity and Sorry Wrong Number (1948), but never won the award. By 1954, her best roles were behind her, though she was far from done in films or on television. She might be best remembered by a certain generation for her four-year turn as Victoria Barkley on TV’s The Big Valley (1965-1969).

Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) is awakened in the middle
 of the night and  happens to look out her window.

In Witness to Murder, Stanwyck plays Cheryl Draper, a single woman who works as an interior designer at Sloane in Beverly Hills (W & J Sloane would get a credit for supplying furniture for the movie. Can anyone say product placement?). A trick of the light awakes Cheryl and as she gets out of bed to close her drapes, she looks out the window. What she sees will change her life forever.

Albert Richter (George Sanders) disposes of Joyce Stewart (Lyn Thomas).

Across the street, through the open window, she sees Albert Richter (George Sanders) strangling a woman. In the struggle, the woman rips the curtains, but can’t fight Richter off. When the killing is over, Cheryl calls the police. Richter sees the police cars arrive and, taking his time, hides the woman’s body in the conveniently unlocked and unoccupied apartment down the hall. Police Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Sgt. Eddie Vincent (Jesse White) arrive and speak to Cheryl before going across the street.

Detective Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Eddie Vincent
 (Jesse White) interview Cheryl about what she saw.

At Richter’s apartment, the police do what at best could be considered a cursory investigation. They don’t notice the ripped curtain or the woman’s earring that Richter clumsily conceals. Satisfied that it is nothing, the police go back across the street to speak to Cheryl. Richter can see the apartment they’re going to. Mathews is very dismissive of what Cheryl claims to have seen, trying to convince her it was only a dream.

The next day, Cheryl notices Richter doing something suspicious.

But the next morning, Cheryl watches as Richter loads a large crate into the back of his car as she leaves for work, which is slap-you-in-the-face suspicious. At work, Cheryl can’t concentrate, so after a run out to far away Van Nuys to meet with a client, she goes over to Richter’s apartment building. The manager (Dick Elliott) is only too eager to show her a vacant apartment, which happens to be the same one that Richter had temporarily hidden the dead body in. She notices drag marks on the floor. When she says she would need to see an apartment that’s furnished, he takes her, without permission, into Richter’s apartment.

There she sees a pair of earrings on his desk, which she pockets. Richter though happens to be in the hallway when she leaves and notices that the earrings are missing. Cheryl beelines it down to police headquarters and straight to Lt. Mathews, but Richter has already reported the theft of the evidence. Richter also comes down unannounced. He apparently already knows Cheryl’s name, though they’ve never been formally introduced. He refuses to press charges and Cheryl is set free.

Cheryl thinks she's found evidence, but she is almost charged with theft.

Mathews takes more than a professional interest in Cheryl. He comes over to see her and talks her into letting him take her out to dinner. We learn from Mathews that he knows Richter’s past as a former Nazi, which is shorthand in anyone’s book for evil. Currently, he claims to be an author, though his books don’t sell, and historian. Richter is currently engaged to the widow of a rich banker, who lives in Pasadena.

Cheryl, who has bought a copy of Richter’s book, reads a passage from it that reveals a Nazi elitism in his views for the role of violence in society. Mathews also reveals what he knows about Cheryl’s backstory; former architecture student, she was once engaged to a boy who died in the war, which she doesn’t seem to have completely gotten over. Mathews, whose sole purpose at this point is exposition, tells Cheryl that he’s going to law school at night, is six months from his degree and hopes one day to be a respected judge. We can tell that Cheryl is somewhat attracted to Mathews, but their fledgling relationship gets off to a rocky start when Richter posts a letter to himself as if written by Cheryl. He even goes so far as to confront her with his own letter in her apartment. He tells her he won’t press charges and balls up the letter in front of her.

Richter confronts Cheryl over letters he accuses her of writing.

But the confrontation is only a ruse to get inside her apartment so that he can jimmy with her door lock. Upset by his intrusion and allegation, Cheryl hurries out to look for Mathews, but, of course, doesn’t check to see if the front door to her apartment is locked. Richter sneaks back in and types more blackmailing letters to himself on her conveniently obvious typewriter. He even retypes the first letter he’d sent himself.

Well, Richter goes so far as to complain to Mathews’ superior, Captain Donnelly (Harry Shannon), about the multiple letters he’s received. Mathews tries to let his Captain let him handle the situation, but it’s already too late. Cheryl has been called down to the station, where Donnelly accuses her of writing the letters and produces, as evidence, the typewriter from her office (can anyone say illegal search and seizure?). He brow beats her into conceding that it looks bad and commits her to a psychiatric ward for observation. Richter is trying and succeeding at ruining her reputation as a witness. But Mathews gets her out.

Cheryl ends up in a psychiatric ward before Mathews gets her out.

Meanwhile, a naked woman’s body has been found in Griffith Park and has been identified based on her fingerprints. Mathews cajoles his partner into doing a little moonlighting on someone else’s case. They go to the woman’s apartment with the Richter’s book jacket photo and ask around if anyone had ever seen him around. But no one has. They go into her apartment, which is being babysat by a policeman (Claude Akins). There they find, in the possessions of a woman described as a dancer/hooker, a copy of Richter’s book. That is enough evidence for Mathews to draw a connection between the dead woman and Richter. They hurry to Cheryl’s apartment.

But Richter is already inside Cheryl’s apartment (did she never lock her front door again?). He reveals to her his master plan, using his thinking and his fiancée’s money he can rule the world, so to speak. But the blonde was in his way and now so is Cheryl. He decides that it’s time for her to commit suicide and has even conveniently typed out her suicide note. But Cheryl fights him off. When a policewoman Mathews has sent over to check on her arrives, she, of course, misreads the situation and assumes Cheryl is crazy. A foot chase takes place with Cheryl gathering a posse of Richter, the policewoman, bystanders and eventually Mathews and Vincent.

Things get heavy for Cheryl before she manages an escape.

Cheryl runs to a building site and runs up the scaffolding to the top of the building, (Why do women in distress run up buildings rather than stay on the ground?) Richter pursues her and manages to toss her over the side before Mathews can make it up the stairs. We’re shown that quite a crowd has miraculously assembled below with police holding back the lines of spectators (How did they organize so fast?). But Cheryl falls only a few feet to a conveniently-placed scaffold. Mathews and Richter struggle, with Mathews managing to pitch Richter down a multi-story shaft to his assumed death.

A conveniently placed scaffold saves Cheryl's life.

But in one more suspense scene, Mathews has to get Cheryl off the scaffolding before it collapses. And wouldn’t you know it he does, grabbing her wrist just as the scaffolding falls. Cheryl becomes so much “dead” weight that the policemen have to pull her up and into Mathews’ waiting arms. And off they walk to a presumed happy ever after.

Cheryl has to be hauled up like so much dead weight.

In my review of Double Indemnity, I had referred to Witness to Murder, in discussing Stanwyck’s career, as “highly under-rated.” Having seen it more recently I need to adjust my proclamation. This is really just an okay movie with problems that keep it from being better. Some of those problems have to do with the writing. Chester Erskine is a bit of a mystery as a writer. His best-known film was The Egg and I (1947), a comedy which paired Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert about a woman who finds out her new husband wants to be a chicken farmer (a precursor of sorts to the Green Acres TV Series). But the film is perhaps best remembered for introducing the Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) Kettle characters that would go on to have their own series of films. Hardly the resume for writing suspense. On the other hand, Erskine wrote and produced the excellent film noir, All My Sons (1948), which is far superior to the effort here.

The script seems to rely on exposition rather than showing and there are far too many conveniences and shortcuts. Why would an empty apartment be unlocked? Why didn’t Richter just walk away from Cheryl after it was shown she was thought to be unreliable? Why was there a scaffold just right where it needed to be when there didn’t seem to be any purpose for it? Making Richter a former Nazi is too easy a way to make him a villain. I could go on and on with problems with the story. And try as hard as Cheryl does, she never really gets anything on Richter until he confesses to her, which again was just dumb on his part.

This is far from Stanwyck’s best performance. Merrill is, I’m afraid, not that great of an actor, but his Mathews is a little too one-note good cop. His fight with Richter seems to be a little out of left field since up until now his character has been milquetoast. Jesse White seems clearly on his way to being the lonely Maytag repairman, a part he played in TV commercials from 1967 to 1988, as he seems to spend most of the film at a desk waiting for the phone to ring.

Witness to Murder is an example of a concept that gets handled better by a better director. The premise of seeing a murder from your window and then having to convince the police it really happened was also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), which came out later the same year as this film. Rear Window is considered a classic and Witness for Murder is not. If the premise intrigues you, I’d recommend Rear Window.

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