Witness to Murder is a 1954 movie which I stumbled across the other day and found surprisingly enjoyable. The premise is engaging, if not totally original – a woman sees a murder committed in the apartment block across the road, but can’t find anyone to believe her story, and becomes increasingly paranoid.
So we are in Rear Window territory, although Cornell Woolrich wasn’t responsible for the screenplay, which was the work of director Chester Erskine. The cinematographic style takes Witness to Murder into the realm of film noir, and despite a few implausible plot twists, and scenes which veer into high melodrama, overall this is an effective piece of movie-making.
The key to the film’s success lies in the casting of the two stars. Barbara Stanwyck is almost as good playing the panic-stricken good girl as she is at portraying the dark-hearted bad girl in Double Indemnity. The oily George Sanders is suitably nasty as Richter, the violence-obsessive who strangles a prostitute and then sets out to destabilise, discredit and ultimately kill the witness to his crime. To rub in how unpleasant Richter is, he turns out to be an ex-Nazi who rants away in an explosive burst of guttural German when provoked. Sanders played so many appalling rotters in his time that I really do hope he was a delightful chap in real life. Fortunately, a nice cop falls for Stanwyck, and though his attempt to prove her story correct draws a blank time and again, he doesn’t give up.
This isn’t a major film, but the suspense is maintained throughout with a climactic scene worthy of Vertigo, and that coupled with the performance of the two stars explains why it has worn well. I’m glad I watched it.