Barbara Stanwyck innocently looks out of bedroom window one night and see George Sanders strangle and murder a woman in an apartment across the street. So, she does what any responsible and humane person would do and reports what she saw to the police.
However, the police find no evidence of any murder. Sanders smoothly refutes this woman’s outrageous claims. Her accusations are dismissed by the police and Police Lt. Gary Merrill, who despite taking a liking to her doesn’t believe her claims. With no one believing her story, Stanwyck takes it upon herself to investigate what exactly Sanders is up to and prove he’s a murderer.
It’s a risky move that Sanders, who’s guilty as can be, can’t allow. He works diligently to throw off suspicion on himself, that all the things this woman is saying about him are absolute lies and work things to make it much more believable that Stanwyck is the unhinged, dangerous one who should be locked away to a sanitarium.
Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcocks’ Rear Window are inevitable when watching Witness To Murder. Predating Rear Window by only a few months in theaters, Witness To Murder doesn’t excel with its premise of a witnessing a long distance murder and the consequences that befall on our hero or in his case our heroine, as well as Hitchcock’s film did.
The story starts to escalate to some pretty improbable levels, that makes it somewhat difficult for me to stick completely with it. But it does deliver on some tension and have two performances by Stanwyck and Sanders at its core that makes it more than worthwhile.
After witnessing the murder, Sanders playing innocent to the police and unable to convince the police of what she saw, Stanwyck manages to get inside Sanders’ apartment in the hopes of finding some kind of evidence of this killing. It’s still not enough. No matter how fervently she pleads, no one believes her.
Sanders remains naturally concerned with Barbara squawking and needs to shut her up. It becomes a matter of ‘He’s Said, She’s Said’. Naturally, the well respected Sanders is believed and Stanwyck is thought to be the one who imagined the whole sordid incident. Sanders plays innocent and the avenue he takes to discredit her I always thought works a bit too easily and conveniently for me to believe.
Despite Stanwyck being such a level-headed individual all her life, having no suspicious behavior in her background or motives for concocting such a story, Sanders easily convinces everyone she is insane from some bogus threatening letters she has sent him. The police, doctors, even Merrill who has fallen for her, now questions her sanity.
Stanwyck is placed in an asylum and has to knowingly admit what she saw from her apartment window is now something untrue and dreamt up in her head. Sanders then can up his game and can make this woman look suicidal and can do her in.
I mean, I would think anyone would take a closer look at Sanders. Yeah, he looks just as normal as Stanwyck on the surface, but dig into his history and we learn he’s an ex-Nazi and is marrying a wealthy woman. It’s hard to accept he could easily slide out from any and all suspicion. It doesn’t appear this case would be that cut and dry as just saying, “Oh this woman is nuts”. Yet, everyone seems to go along with it.
This plays out way too easy for Sanders. He doesn’t have much of a problem with this lady and it’s ends up quite an easy problem for him to solve. It also makes everyone who is buying into this insanity diagnosis and dismissing Stanwyck seem too easily gullible by the sweet talking of Sanders.
The theme leans into how a woman’s word could be so easily dismissed against a man’s. Which is what happens to Stanwyck, and it could be an effective angle to the story, if was done in more a convincing way. But it proceeds to happen so incredibly quickly, and easily. Sanders barely breaks a sweat putting his game in motion. The web of lies he’s woven around her to point the finger at her sanity, I can’t help but feel is a bit too shaky for everyone to discount this woman.
On the upside, Sanders is good as the sophisticated killer. I love the guys voice. He’s got one of those classic smooth sophisticated voices that you can just enjoy listening to. He would have been great for audio books. Stanwyck is her usual dependable self and there are some glorious black and white cinematography that runs throughout the film. It really gives the film that ‘noirish’ look that fans are looking for and adds anxiety to Stanwyck’s ordeal. There’s a climactic climb up a construction site where the film ultimately concludes that delivers on some well earned tension.
It’s a fairly simple and straight forward little story and it’s told well. For me, it’s how Stanwyck is so consistently not believed by everyone else in the film that kind of neuters things somewhat. Not one person, even Merrill, are second guessing Sanders’ tale? Others have expressed not being bothered by that as much as I am, so your mileage may vary. If you can ignore the plot holes, Witness To Murder will deliver on its promise of being asuspenseful yarn.
The trailer is kind of funny with Stanwyck narrating it in a frantic tone. You’ll get an idea of the great cinematography.