Alfred Hitchcock may have attained triumphant results for Rear Window in 1954, but Barbara Stanwyck also proved that she could surpass his record in a more thrilling production titled Witness To Murder, a suspenseful Film Noir that resembles Rear Window, also released the same year.
If it weren’t for Rear Window that dominated box office popularity on it’s release a month later, Witness To Murder would have been highly regarded by critics. At the time of it’s initial release, Witness To Murder had everything running in it’s favor. It highlighted a myriad of aspects that a cinematic staple contains, and unlike the latter it was shot in glorious black and white, and enhanced by superb cinematography and atmospheric vapors.
The films director, Roy Rowland is not as eminent as Alfred Hitchcock, nor has he had a successful string of pictures like Hitchcock. In truth, Rowland was only second rate compared to Hollywood’s pantheon of directors, who spotlighted the entertainment industry with their commendable efforts in directing. For Rowland, Witness To Murder is what I would call his most effectual film. It provided him with the opportunity to explore heavy, solid material that is not only entertaining but rich and suspenseful in detail.
Witness To Murder was produced by Chester Erskine, with the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, and featuring a stellar cast which includes, Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Gary Merrill, who at the time of filming was married to Bette Davis.
Barbara Stanwyck headlines the production as the films protagonist. One cold, windy night in Los Angeles, Cheryl Draper ( Stanwyck ) awakens to witness a woman being strangled to death from her bedroom window. Shocked with what she just discovered, she immediately phones the police, but after Lt. Lawrence Mathews ( Gary Merrill ) arrives at the scene and finds no evidence of murder in the apartment of Albert Richter ( George Sanders ) he automatically believes that Cheryl dreamed the whole situation.
As time progresses, Cheryl still firmly believes that she observed a real life murder taking place, and is persistent in trying to get her point across to the police, but before she knows it, it’s Cheryl’s sanity that comes into question.
The similarities between Witness To Murder and Rear Window are more than evident all though out the film. Like Hitchcock’s production, the films main prop to where the crimes are witnessed is the bedroom window, and to really resemble the latter, the object used to spy in the neighboring apartment to investigate the incident are a pair of binoculars, but while it contains many of the same elements as Rear Window, it also bares a startling analogy to Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho.
In Witness To Murder, Barbara Stanwyck has a role that’s identical to James Stewart as the protagonist who witnesses the crime happening, and remains adamant in her beliefs about what she observed. Both characters experience trouble with the police, who won’t believe them and start defending the antagonist, who in this case is George Sanders in a role that resembles that of Raymond Burr in Rear Window.
Alfred Hitchcock is truly a virtuoso of the film industry and Rear Window definitely warranted the critical acclaim it received, but in no means is a Witness To Murder a pale imitation of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Of course both films explore many of the same avenues and are similar in comparison, but audiences who favor the latter tend to forget that Witness To Murder was made and released before Rear Window.
In my opinion, Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress to ever grace the silver screen. In the annals of cinema history there is no other star that possessed the versatility that Stanwyck inhabited. From the moment she stepped foot on Hollywood soil, Stanwyck had been portraying a plethora of diverse roles in every genre imaginable. After her victorious results as the femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity ( 1944 ) Barbara Stanwyck’s adeptness to Film Noir was well established, so much that she became accustomed to this genre during the 40’s and the 50’s.
Witness To Murder might not be considered one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best works, but when you have an illustrious resume with a myriad of memorable roles, it’s hard to choose what is. Stanwyck pioneered her way through a multitude of meritorious productions that are definitely worthy of an Oscar, in which she sadly never obtained.
I personally feel that Witness To Murder is one film that deserves more recognition. There is absolutely nothing that one could possibly dislike about the movie. It’s abounded by a great script, an excellent cast, atmospheric cinematography, and a rising flow of suspense, resulting in a nail biting climax that will keep the viewer intrigued from beginning to end.
Apart from the many highlights, the cast is one exceptional feature. Barbara Stanwyck is laudable as Cheryl Draper, the indomitable, intelligent and independent woman who witnesses the murder and is determined to get the case resolved, even going as far as investigating the crime herself. She would do anything to prove to the police that she is correct, even if it means arranging a tour of Richter’s apartment that is for rent so she can search for evidence, and when she finds a pair of earrings, she immediately takes them to the police to convince them she’s right, but sadly for Cheryl this method is not effective.
Both George Sanders and Gary Merrill are magnificent. George Sanders is in full sneer mode as Albert Richter. To the police, he appears amiable and demonstrates that he would be incapable of committing such a crime, but in truth, he’s a cold, ruthless murderer with a motive to kill.
The film is also packed with extreme punch. The scene where Cheryl is sent to the insane asylum is very intense and dramatic. In this particular part, Barbara Stanwyck as Cheryl Draper transforms her expressions into abysmal emotions as she is being swept into a mental state. Without having to resort to histrionics, Barbara is able to execute this scene perfectly by displaying such raw feelings and mountains of emotions.
Witness To Murder is the true definition of Film Noir at it’s zenith. From John Alton’s cinematography and the outstanding cast to the memorable chilling finale, this is one production that is not to be missed.
George Sanders and Gary Merrill had previously worked together on All About Eve.
Juanita Moore appears in a cameo role in the insane asylum. Moore later became famous for her role in the 1959 remake of Imitation Of Life.
When Cheryl Draper is reading the newspaper article about the dead girl’s body being discovered, the top part of the article is about the girl; the rest of the article is about the stock market.
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82. Cause of death: Congestive heart failure and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Gary Merrill: Born Gary Fred Merrill on August 2nd, 1915 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: March 5th, 1990 in Falmouth, Maine. Aged 74. Cause of death: Lung Cancer.
George Sanders: Born George Henry Sanders on July 3rd, 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire. Died: April 25th, 1972 in Barcelona, Spain. Aged 65. Cause of death: Suicide.