Thursday 24 June 2010

Witness to Murder

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.


Anonymous said...

Martin - I admit I haven't seen Witness to Murder, but it sounds like a good view, and I like Barbara Stanwyck. You mentioned quite a good role of hers in Double Indemnity. Thanks for the recommendation.

Mason Canyon said...

Sometimes the old movies are the best. Bits of this sound familiar. I'll have to dig through my old movie collection and see if I have it.

Thoughts in Progress

Deb said...

George Sanders was a wonderful actor who excelled in playing either villains or world-weary cynics. He cultivated that persona, epitomized in his best-known role as theater critic Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve." He was married briefly to Zsa Zsa Gabor, who always said he was her favorite husband. There are a couple of Sanders biographies (one written by his close friend, actor Brian Aherne) and Sanders also wrote an autobiography called (I believe) MEMOIRS OF A CAD. Sadly, he suffered from depression most of his life and eventually committed suicide in the early 1970s. His suicide note read, "Forgive me, I was bored."

aguja said...

Come the autumn, I shall look through your film reviews, to build up a winter viewing programme (excepting that it won't be as organised as that!)
I love it that you pull films from relative obscurity, like searching the bottom of a bag for goodies.

Unknown said...

Wow, some of those old movies are so wonderful. Hitchcock, even though he didn't have the bonus of better effects on his side, made movies that have stood the test of time. Even though Marnie (by Hitchcock) had fake backgrounds and silly red lenses, it still is wonderful psychological case study.


Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments.
Deb, that's an extraordinary story about Sanders' death. And I like the idea of his being Zsa Zsa's 'favourite husband'.
Aguja, thanks, and I shall keep the film reviews coming.
Clarissa, I've not seen Marnie for many years, but I remember liking it.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think Stanwyck was amazing. Thanks for the recommendation for "Witness."