Friday, April 10, 2020

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Witness to Murder, 1954


Movie buffs all understand the conflicting emotions when you discover a film you have never heard of that features a favourite performer or director. Such was my experience about 15 years ago when a local channel aired Witness to Murder, 1954.

On one hand, it was a treat to have a "new" movie to discover. On the other hand, Missy AND George Sanders?! Where has this been all my life? Making up for lost time, I have watched this movie at every available opportunity. It is now like an old friend stopping by for a visit.

Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck stars as "Miss" Cheryl Draper (the "Miss" is penciled in on her apartment's mailbox), career girl. Awakened by the wind one night, she observes a disturbing sight in the apartment opposite hers; a man strangling a woman. Naturally, as a concerned citizen, Cheryl phones the police who dispatch detectives Lawrence Matthews played by Gary Merrill and Eddie Vincent played by Jesse White.

Jesse White, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Merrill

Sadly for Cheryl and the slow-grinding wheels of justice, the murderer is Albert Richter played by George Sanders. He is an extremely cool customer who has already successfully hidden the body and disposed of the evidence to the best of his ability. The detectives, who admittedly seemed none to anxious to pursue the case in the first place, explain to Miss Draper that she probably imagined everything. Sgt. Vincent is quick to put it down to female hysteria. Lt. Matthews agrees with his partner but is also attracted to this particular hysterical female.

George Sanders

Cheryl: "Did you see his eyes? The smile doesn't match the eyes."

Cheryl is a smart woman who lives in a smart apartment and drives a smart car. She is an artist who has studied architecture and works as an interior designer at W & J Sloane. She knows she was awake, and she knows what she saw. Nonetheless, with no tangible evidence, the police cannot lay charges against a "noted historian and author." Thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Cheryl is convinced that to ensure her silence Richter will try to kill her. She is equally convinced by the attitude of the police that no one will believe her. The attitude of the police is muddied by Larry Matthews' sympathetic attitude. He wants to believe Cheryl. He wants to pursue a relationship with Cheryl.  Cheryl wants to get out of this thing alive. She begins her own investigation and every time she shares a theory or clue with her potential boyfriend, he knocks it down.

Albert "cool customer" Richter works his own angle of framing Cheryl for harassment by convincing the police that she is mentally unstable. The second part of his plan is not too difficult to enact. It is the prevailing theory among society at large that a single woman is nuts. Obviously, without a man in her life, she is prone to flights of fancy and creating trouble.

Larry tries to help, but can't keep Cheryl from being placed in the observation ward of a mental hospital. Cheryl finds the experience demoralizing but is smart enough to learn to play along with the psychiatrist to gain her freedom. It is obvious from the detail in the questioning that they have seriously investigated her past and lifestyle.

Juanita Moore

The mental ward cast is "Helen Kleeb - Nurse (uncredited), Claire Carleton - May, Adeline de Walt Reynolds - The Old Lady, and Juanita Moore - Negress." The last one is not a credit I have noted elsewhere and they could have called her "Singing patient" and we'd still get it.   

Freedom only brings Cheryl back into Richter's orbit. He confesses all to his accuser knowing that her emotional problems are now part of her record. We now know the reason for Richter's extreme confidence. He is a Nazi who is not about to let a little thing like women or the end of the war stop his march into the future. He is about to marry into the money required for his revolution, so Cheryl must die and it must look like a suicide.

Gary Merrill, Jesse White

It is now that the cops start acting like cops, even though it is no longer their case.

Larry: "We're detectives, aren't we? Let's start acting like it."
Eddie: "TV detectives. Da-da-da-da (Dragnet theme). 6:45, we go looking for trouble. 6:46, we find it."

A connection from Richter to the finally found and identified murder victim is found. Now they can go about rescuing Cheryl. The whole thing ends at the top of an under-construction building. There is fear on the mouse's face, but the confidence of knowing she has not lost her mind. The cat, on the other hand, is clearly mad. Nazis, it seems, must always rise high for a long fall.

Chester Erskine (The Egg and I), produced and wrote the screenplay with an uncredited Nunnally Johnson (The Mudlark) and Roy Rowland (Rogue Cop) directed. The superb John Alton (Border Incident) was the cinematographer. Include this in your evening's entertainment along with The Window, 1949 and Rear Window, 1954.

Barbara Stanwyck and what appears to be a nifty mode of transportation

After you know the story, the movie retains its "old friend" status due to the location background captured by John Alton. The Linda Vista Apartments and Miramonte Terrace take us out of the soundstage and into actual dwellings, making the Witness to Murder experience part movie and part time machine. When we go to Cheryl's workplace it is the real W & J Sloane department store.

PS: Cheryl's smart wardrobe is courtesy of Kay Nelson (Leave Her to Heaven) and all the smart decorations and furnishings are from W & J Sloane.

I will leave the final word on Witness to Murder with the superintendent of the murdered woman's apartment building.

"She's a pretty girl. Pretty girls get in trouble all the time. No husband. No good!"

A picture of a time past? Or the more things change, the more they stay the same?


Movie connections:


When Albert Richter was a baby he was Schlager in Confessions of a NaziSpy, 1939.



Gary Merrill and George Sanders of Witness to Murder halfway up the stairs in All About Eve, 1950.











28 comments:

  1. George Sanders and Barbara Stanwyck together!! You've made my week. Thank you. Loved your description of the single pretty girl being a problem....How often has THAT fallacy been portrayed?

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    1. The power wielded by that idea that a single woman is unhappy/hysterical is galling. Cheryl in our movie is truly up against it.

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  2. Sounds like REAR WINDOW meets GASLIGHT—but damn, they throw Stany in the looney bin just because she saw a crime? That’s messed up.

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    1. Messed up indeed. The first time we watched it, I was angry and Garry was laughing. He was laughing in disbelief, but also at me being so shocked. I'm sure stuff like that still goes on.

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  3. Later when BARBARA STANWYCK was on THE BIG VALLEY there was a episode where her character VICTORIA BARKLEY witnesses her godson BUDDY kill a saloon girl. Buddys father is a judge(played by ROBERT MIDDLETON). He says that she is crazy and needs help. Later his servant puts something in her tea while the judge is gone. When the judge gets back he takes her-still passed out-to a mental institution! The title of the ep is DOWN SHADOW ROAD.

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    1. I remember that episode. Everything was stacked against her.

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  4. I had the same feeling you had when discovering this movie: OMG, Barbara Stanwyck AND George Sanders together in a film! Love how you point out the character' (and movie's) attitude towards its heroine, of being crazy because she lives alone and is devoted to a career, prevalent in so many 1950s films. Stanwyck played similar characters in There's Always Tomorrow and Crime of Passion (both from the 50s) - And George Sanders also played a Nazi in Manhunt as well as this film and Confessions of a Nazi Spy, so HE seemed to be working a theme, too! I would have loved to see Stanwyck and Sanders play together in a comedy - they both had sharp timing, a sense of humor, and an acid way with a line, which would have made for a good pairing. Ah, one of those many dream-scenarios never realized!

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    1. A wicked comedy with our Missy and our George sounds like a dream!

      I wonder if George said "Oh, another Nazi" with glee or "Oh, another Nazi" with resignation.

      When I wrote about Crime of Passion years ago I said that Kathy Doyle was what would have happened to Hildy if she had married Bruce. Ha-ha-ha (I crack me up.)

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  5. How cool! Stanwyck and Sanders together would be a dream find. I agree that it seems like a Rear Window kind of story, too.

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    1. There was something in the air that year, movie-wise.

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  6. I like this movie, but I agree there are some jagged edges that keep it from being better - like the whole crazy woman misogynist nonsense. I would have liked to see more of her background as an artist come into the story - especially since, as you noted, she makes the remark about the smile not matching the eyes.

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    1. Cheryl was indeed a character worth delving into more completely. Maybe some one will look into reworking the story for today.

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  7. Sounds like a great movie, although I'm dubious about suave sophisticated uber-intelligent George Sanders as a LA Nazi, but maybe he pulls it off. As for everyone assuming c-r-a-z-y Barbara Stanwyck is imagining things, didn't she have the same problem in "Sorry, wrong number"? Or am *I* imagining things? Finally, I always liked Gary Merrill and wondered why he didn't have a bigger career. Sure, he wasn't a Burt Lancaster "tough guy" but he was a smart, handsome man and a very good actor - IMO.

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    1. George pulls it off. Of course, he is helped by the prevailing ideas of single womanhood.

      I haven't seen Sorry, Wrong Number in a while but between the telephone operators and crossed wires, nobody thought the lady on the phone was all there.

      I like Merrill too, an interesting and subtle guy.

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  8. When I first started reading your review, I actually thought, "Barbara Stanwyck AND George Sanders? How come I've never heard of it?!" Well, I've heard of it now, thanks to you. I'm looking forward to it, even with the single-hysterical-woman views.

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  9. The name KAY NELSON didn't seem familiar to me so I looked her up on wiki. Ive seen about a dozen movies where she did the wardrobe. Interestingly, one is MOTHER IS A FRESHMAN (with LORETTA YOUNG) and another one is FATHER WAS A FULLBACK(with FRED MACMURRAY). They both have BETTY LYNN as a daughter. Also MISS NELSON did the wardrobe for BILLY ROSES DIAMOND HORSESHOW with glamour girl BETTY GRABLE and DICK HAYMES(who was once married to RITA HAYWORTH).

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    1. Kay Nelson costumed Stanwyck in our movie and in Blowing Wild. The contemporary wardrobe in that adventure movie reminded me somewhat of things that Victoria Barkley would wear.

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  10. I want to correct an error. The BIG VALLEY episode I mentioned earlier is titled DOWN SHADOW STREET. Also I want to correct a typo. That should say Diamond HORSESHOE.

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  11. Another BARBARA STANWYCK movie came out in 1954. I think its one of your favorite movies-EXECUTIVE SUITE with WILLIAM HOLDEN. Two other favorites of yours (I think) both came out that year. SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS with JANE POWELL & HOWARD KEEL and THERES NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS with ETHEL MERMAN, DAN DAILEY, DONALD OCONNOR and MITZI GAYNOR. P.S. HOWARD KEEL was born on this date(Apr. 13) in 1917. 103 years ago. His passing was in 2004 at the age of 87. I first knew him from the hit series DALLAS then SEVEN BRIDES... then SHOWBOAT.

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    1. imdb and wiki has the birth year of HOWARD KEEL as 1919. Another source had it as 1917.

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    2. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was my introduction to Howard Keel. I was lucky to see him in the 80s on tour with Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and in South Pacific. That voice!

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  12. I'd be worried if Jesse White showed as a detective to investigate a murder I witnessed! Considering that Hollywood was largely chauvinistic through the 1950s, it's amazing that Barbara Stanwyck appeared as strong, independent women in so many of her films.

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    1. Indeed. Repairing appliances is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing Jesse at the door.

      The chauvinism in the attitude toward a single woman is galling to me in this day and age. It was so blatant in this movie and I wonder if it was to shed a light or merely, the order of the day.

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  13. I looked up this movie on imdb. CLAUDE AKINS and SAM EDWARDS had uncredited roles. Claude did an ep of THE BIG VALLEY titled THE BRAWLERS as an Irishman. He did 10 eps of GUNSMOKE and later he was on 4 eps of MURDER, SHE WROTE the first season in a recurring role. Sam did 8 eps of GUNSMOKE. P.S. Both character actors were born in GEORGIA.

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    1. When (or if) you get to see Witness to Murder, Claude Akins had a nice spotlight role as a cop and Sam Edwards worked the counter at the place Cheryl would stop to eat.

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  14. ROY ROWLAND married RUTH, the niece of LOUIS B. MAYER. Their son STEVE ROWLAND was an actor and also a singer and record producer. He had an uncredted part in THE MOONLIGHTER which starred BARBARA STANWYCK and was directed by his dad. Steve guest starred on BONANZA and WAGON TRAIN. He also did some eps of THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP.

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  15. Director Craig Zobel's film "Compliance" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

    0123movies

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