Sunday, 17 February 2019

Noir Diary #1:
Witness to Murder
(Roy Rowland, 1954)

It’s funny how these things happen in Hollywood sometimes, isn’t it? ‘Witness to Murder’, in which Barbara Stanwyck looks out of her window one night and sees her neighbour in the opposite apartment block cheerily killing a woman, was released by United Artists four months before Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ premiered in August 1954.

The most likely explanation of course is simply that producer Chester Erskine (who also takes credit for ‘Witness to Murder’s screenplay) got wind of the idea behind Hitch’s next big picture and decided to ‘leap-frog’ it, much as outfits like The Asylum and ScyFy do with blockbusters these days. Personally though, I always like to try to give the little guy a break, so it’s interesting to speculate about other possibilities.

Perhaps Erskine had been independently working up an idea based on the same Cornell Woolrich story that inspired ‘Rear Window’, rejigging it somewhat when (for obvious reasons) he couldn’t get the rights? Or, could both projects have just end up being developed in parallel, growing from a treatment that might have been swishing across studio big-wigs desks for years, or even from some loud-mouth who might have been making the rounds of Hollywood parties with a “hey, I got a great idea for a picture…” routine..?

Who knows. Perhaps Hitchcock scholars might be able to shed some light on the matter (I don’t think there are any Chester Erskine scholars), but in all likelihood the exact circumstances that led to ‘Witness To Murder’s fortuitous release date are now lost to time. Fortunately however, ‘Witness..’ is a more interesting movie than its reputation as a kind of low rent ‘Rear Window’ rip-off would tend to suggest, rambling off in a different direction entirely as soon as the strikingly similar initial premise is out of the way.

Whereas in ‘Rear Window’ for instance, Jimmy Stewart’s attempts to apprehend the killer are hindered by his literal lack of mobility, in ‘Witness to Murder’, Stanwyck finds herself having to contend with the more fundamental lack of societal mobility that results simply from being a woman in 1954. At least her character Cheryl Draper is one of those self-confident, single career–women who tend to pop up with great regularity in Hitchcock’s ‘50s films (funnily enough), so that probably helps, but even so, Stanwyck’s evident bad-assery cuts little ice with the assorted male authority figures whom she is required to convince of the truth of her tale.

So, yes, I’m afraid it looks like we’re dealing with one of those old “I know what I saw, but what can I do to make them believe me?” numbers here, but things certainly perk up a bit when the detectives who initially respond to Cheryl’s call on the night of the murder head over to the alleged scene of the crime, and find none other than George Sanders lounging around in his luxoriously padded dressing gown.

Sanders’ character here turns out to be one Albert Richter, a sort of controversial public intellectual whose work, we are told, celebrates humanity’s violent instincts in aggressively Nietzschean terms, arguing that murder can be morally justified in certain circumstances (such as when intellectually superior specimens like himself find themselves annoyed by their inferiors, for instance). So, uh… yeah.

Despite this however, Sanders manages to charm the cops with his trademark panache, just about maintaining his cool as he distracts their attention from the remaining evidence of his crime (kicking a stray lipstick under the desk, standing in front of the torn curtain, that sort of thing), until he eventually hustles them out of the door, wishing them a hearty good night and casually suggesting that his lady accuser across the hall may have just gotten a little over-excited, or something equally patronising; because we all know how daffy women can get now and again when they’re left on their own, don’t we chaps?

Thereafter, watching the unfolding battle of wits between Stanwyck and Sanders becomes this film’s main selling point, with both delivering far stronger performances than Erskine’s boilerplate scripting really deserves. Clearly, Sanders’ unconventional character provides the most intriguing element here, and thankfully we get to see plenty of him, as he ups his game against Stanwyck, indulging in an audacious bit of Gaslighting (stolen typewriter, false letters) in order to get her committed to an asylum.

Richter’s cause is helped considerably by the sheer level of dismissal that Cheryl receives from the powers-that-be, and, following her brief incarceration in the nuthouse, even she begins to doubt her recollection of events (maybe I did imagine it, maybe I was dreaming, etc). The film misses a trick here I think due to the fact that both the reality of the murder and Richter’s guilt have clearly been established from the outset, thus preventing this temporary weakening of our heroine’s resolve from creating any genuine ambiguity or memory / perception-based uncertainty. (No chance of this one turning into one of those new, fangled psychological thrillers, no sir!)

Never mind though, because there is still a lot of fun to be had with the final act revelation that – as anyone who has been appraised of his rather extreme views might reasonably have suspected – Richter is actually an escaped Nazi fugitive, passing himself off as an American under an assumed name!

This particular bit of post-war paranoia of course takes us straight back to Orson Welles’ similarly plotted ‘The Stranger’ from 1946 (a movie which also perhaps finds an echo in ‘Witness to Murder’s climactic, tall building-based denouement), whilst, for his part, Sanders certainly had good form playing suave Nazis. In particular here, he seems to be drawing upon superbly menacing characterisation he brought to Fritz Lang’s ‘Man Hunt’ (1941), reminding us just what a great villain he could be when he played it straight(ish).

One of the best moments in ‘Witness to Murder’ comes when, driven to the end of his tether by Cheryl’s continued badgering, Richter suddenly breaks his ‘cover’ and unleashes a mouthful of spluttering, German invective, before announcing that no one can prevent the inevitable triumph of the “4th Reich”! Oops.

Even better though is Stanwyck’s reaction to this. Although her character is already aware of Richter’s Nazi past by this point in the story, the withering look of bored non-surprise she gives him (as if to say, “yeah… figures”) is simply fantastic.

So, that’s all well and good, but, the eternal question - is it noir? Well…. long-term readers will be all too familiar with the issues I have with the tendency to arbitrarily categorise all pre-1960 Hollywood thrillers as Film Noir, but basically I think we’re looking at a borderline case here.

Though the film spends much of its time futzing around in more mundane b-movie mystery territory, delineating the space between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with tedious clarity, the darkness of Richter’s background and the psychotic nature of his infiltration of American life nonetheless lend it a welcome tang of noir-ish societal corruption. (Did I mention that he is engaged to an influential widowed heiress, and has previously left a prostitute strangled in an L.A. park in order to protect his reputation?)

Likewise, the aforementioned asylum sequence recalls the ‘crooked doctor’ / ‘shady clinic’ motifs that proliferate in the work of Chandler and Hammett, and it is realised here with consummate skill. In terms of set design, it doesn’t look as if they had much more to work with than a couple of old bed frames, but the way the sequence is staged makes it truly memorable. In the foreground, a black inmate (future Oscar nominee Juanita Moore) croons a blues lament, her gently defused shadow standing out on the far wall, whilst a catty white woman yaks away behind her, repeatedly telling her to shut up, and an elderly lady sits forgotten in the corner, obsessively repeating the same phrase again and again.

Though hardly progressive in its portrayal of mental illness, this brief, throwaway scene presents a nightmarish extension of the film’s central theme of women’s concerns being side-lined by patriarchal authority; carrying both a raw, exploitation kick and an undertow of dream-like sadness, it attains a notable level of pulp artistry.

Which helps bring us neatly to the main justification for ‘Witness to Murder’s categorisation as noir – namely, the presence of the great John Alton, an inspired cinematographer whose talents helped define the look of many of the very best low budget noirs (‘Raw Deal’, ‘He Walked By Night’ and The Big Combo, to name but a few).

Though director Roy Rowland does competent enough work here, it is Alton’s touch that is most strongly felt in the film’s visuals, with his attention-grabbing compositions and trademark use of single source spot-lighting adding real atmospheric clout to otherwise rather flat stretches of script, turning simple set-ups such as the one in which the pair of detectives walk down the corridor to Richter’s apartment into ominous tableaus of high contrast silhouettes and jagged angles, with the looming threat of violence ever-present; absolute text book film noir, needless to say.

Beyond all this though, the surest indicator of ‘Witness to Murder’s noir cred is the fact that mild-mannered male lead Gary Merrill – playing the affable, pipe-smoking middle-aged cop who provides an unlikely romantic interest for Stanwyck – feels completely out of place amid the brooding shadows and rampaging Nazis. Get back to yer slippers and cocoa, pops, the world around him seems to be saying, cos the nice little murder mystery you thought you were in is going downtown.


Wes said...

Good stuff Ben, Barbara Stanwyck and John Alton would be the big draw here. I might have come across the film at some point but it doesn't ring a bell, and I don't recall it mentioned in Patrick McGilligan's Hitchcock biography, so thanks for introducing it. Looking forward to more Noir Diary entries.

Ben said...

Thanks again Wes, and especially for taking the time to consult the Hitchcock biog.

I hope there will be more of these posts forthcoming, if I get a chance to write them. Settling down with a noir and a glass of whisky on a Sunday evening makes for great relaxation.