Witness to Murder, Roy Rowland

Victim Blaming in the 1950s with Film-Noir ‘Witness to Murder’

Roy Rowland’s Witness to Murder’ from the 1950s noir cycle, is an exercise in paranoia from a woman’s point of view.

Witness to Murder
Roy Rowland
United Artists
15 April 1954

Witness to Murder (1954) opens with a pre-credits sequence in which Cheryl Draper (noir icon Barbara Stanwyck) wakes up in the middle of the night and, looking across the street, witnesses neighbor Albert Richter (George Sanders) strangling a woman in his apartment. She calls the police, who say she must have dreamed it because they can find no evidence of a crime.

However, the killer knows very well that she’s a witness, and he embarks on a diabolical plan to persecute and eliminate her. It proves remarkably easy to convince the police that she’s unstable and needs to be locked away in the women’s ward of a mental hospital.

There have, of course, been other films in which an eyewitness isn’t believed. One of the most famous examples, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, opened simultaneously with Roy Rowland’s film. One crucial difference is the subtext provided by the gender switch, which implies that Draper is punished for being a single, successful career woman and that all women are patronized and controlled in a legal and medical system run by men. The idea that Draper belongs to a world of female victims is underlined by her connection to the murder and by the microcosm in the asylum: an ignored old lady (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), a blonde nympho (Claire Carleton), and a black woman (Juanita Moore of Imitation of Life).

Draper doesn’t have the story to herself, as plenty of screentime is allotted to the killer (whose guilt is never in doubt to us), an intellectual ex-Nazi who plans to marry a wealthy widow and the homicide detective (Gary Merrill) who’s attracted to Draper. This sexual attraction, more than anything else, will redeem Draper from being imprisoned in the system as he secures her release from the hospital. The murder that defines the story is against a woman and is motivated by ideas of her relative value as a sexual plaything vs. a stepping stone in the Nazi’s career.

Albert Richter is depicted as mad in Witness to Murder, but he hoodwinks others into perceiving Draper as the mad one. Despite the melodramatic trappings and over-the-top ending in that shrill ’50s way, the sense of frustration and claustrophobia, and power crossed with sexism, feels plausible.

By the ’50s, with the new predominance of television in US culture, the noir cycle had adopted a flatter, more brightly lit, documentary-like style. Fortunately, Rowland (who made Rogue Cop the same year) worked with great photographer John Alton, and they come up with vivid chiaroscuro and shadow effects in the more threatening scenes. Chester Erskine wrote and produced the picture, with uncredited script work from Nunnally Johnson. The script is simple, yet Stanwyck manages to work in much more subtlety than required when she can get away with it. Sanders, meanwhile, is in his element.

Also in Witness to Murder are Jesse White as Merrill’s partner, who hums the Dragnet theme as a joke; Harry Shannon as their boss, revealing himself as angry and high-handed where he’d appeared reasonable; Dick Elliott as the manager who has no problem letting strangers into people’s apartments; Lewis Martin as the disinterested shrink who never looks as Draper during their interview; Helen Kleeb as the pinch-faced nurse who looks like Agnes Moorehead; and Claude Akins as a friendly beer-drinking cop who’d rather be elsewhere.

RATING 6 / 10