Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Witness to Murder (1954) at the Noir City Film Festival

Another night, another evening at the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival!

Things got off to an unexpected but pleasant start when Margo of the American Cinematheque very kindly gave my blog and Twitter account a shoutout in her talk before the film, acknowledging my coverage of the festival and the fact that I've been there every evening thus far. It was a nice surprise to be mentioned, and I appreciated it very much!

There was also an earthquake in L.A. while I was at the Egyptian, but happily I didn't feel it!

Tonight was a Barbara Stanwyck double bill consisting of WITNESS TO MURDER (1954) and JEOPARDY (1953).

WITNESS TO MURDER is sort of a cross between REAR WINDOW (1954) and GASLIGHT (1944). I enjoyed it very much, especially as it costars two actors I like, George Sanders and Gary Merrill.

The movie gets off to a brisk start during the opening credits sequence, when Stanwyck, as Cheryl Draper, is awakened on a windy night. Cheryl gets out of bed to shut her window and stands transfixed staring at the window across the street, where she can see Albert Richter (Sanders) choke a woman to death.

Cheryl calls the police but Detective Larry Mathews (Merrill) and his partner Eddie Vincent (Jesse White) can't find any sign of a dead body in Richter's apartment.  Richter even manages to come up with a cover story for the blinds the murder victim tore in the struggle.

The police are baffled, going so far as to suggest to Cheryl that she had a vivid nightmare. But Cheryl knows what she saw, and she's afraid Richter will come after her next since he knows she knows the truth.

The evidence mounts against Richter, at least in Cheryl's eyes, but he cleverly manages things so that everyone, police included, question Cheryl's sanity rather than his possible criminality.

This was a very enjoyable film thanks to the three lead actors, a fast-moving story which clocks in at 83 minutes, and atmospheric Los Angeles locations shot in black and white by the great John Alton.

To be sure, it's not a perfect film. Larry shows an exasperating lack of curiosity about Richter for much of the film, and continuing to explain things away as a figment of "sensitive" Cheryl's imagination makes no sense. Would Larry really start to fall for a woman that bonkers? She's clearly as sane as can be, but without Larry's doubts the story would have wrapped up in short order!

Sanders is as oily as one might expect as the clever murderer, even going so far as to confess the crime to Cheryl, boasting that everyone thinks she's crazy and won't believe her anyway. That said, the scene where he reveals the extent of his nuttiness to Cheryl goes rather over the top; he's not just a simple murderer, but a Nazi dreaming of world domination! It was startling enough that the audience couldn't help chuckling.

Flaws aside, I had a very good time watching the movie, and I especially enjoyed the Los Angeles locations. Cheryl works as an interior designer at W. & J. Sloane in Beverly Hills, which I was unfamiliar with but was an actual store of the era.

Thanks to Alan Rode's comments, I also learned that Stanwyck's apartment building is still standing near Koreatown. When I got home I searched to see if Robby had written about the locations at Dear Old Hollywood, and indeed he had, right here.

WITNESS TO MURDER was directed by Roy Rowland. It was written by Chester Erskine and the uncredited Nunnally Johnson.

The film has some interesting faces, including Juanita Moore (IMITATION OF LIFE) and Adeline De Walt Reynolds as mental hospital patients. Helen Kleeb, best known as Miss Mamie Baldwin on THE WALTONS, plays the nurse in the mental ward. Claude Akins received a round of applause when he popped in briefly for a scene as a cop guarding a murder victim's apartment; he'd only appeared in a couple of films previously, with his debut having been in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953).

WITNESS TO MURDER is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I had never heard of "Witness to Murder" until it ran on local television a few years ago. As a huge Stanwyck fan, this surprised me that I had a "new" movie to watch. Since then I never miss it when it airs. There is something very appealing about the location shooting and cinematography. I like Cheryl's single lady lifestyle. And I love watch my husband get ever madder than I do at the outright chauvinism displayed toward the lead character. The times have certainly changed.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for the tweet and the link. Enjoyed reading what you thought of the film. It's an interesting one, worth it for Sanders, Stanwyck, and the locations alone. Wish I could have caught this one at the Egyptian!


8:15 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I too remember chuckling when Richter lets all of his Nazi evilness hang out, but it I just enjoyed it too much to consider it a flaw. Really, I think there isn't anything George Sanders is asked to do in a movie that I wouldn't enjoy just because it's him doing it! For me and many others he's that "he could just stand and read the phone book" guy.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman, I agree, the evocative locations are a big part of why I enjoyed this movie so much. The film does a great job in capturing a certain time and place in L.A. on film.

Robby, so glad you wrote about the locations, when I found your post I remembered reading it the first time -- glad I caught up with it!

Blake, that's very true. Sanders is always fun and I would probably be happy listening to him read the phone book myself. And the Nazi moment was over the top in a rather enjoyable "Can you believe this but isn't it fun?" kind of way. :)

Best wishes,

1:17 PM  

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