Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: Witness to Murder, 1954

**Me humble contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon (July 16-22) hosted by that effervescent nut Aubyn Eli at The Girl With The White Parasol.**

 My first thought watching Roy Rowland's 1954 thriller noir Witness to Murder was that it toted a proto-feminist message of the trials and tribulations that befall a smart, capable woman who is slapped down by a patriarchal society for insisting on expressing herself. In the case of Barbara Stanwyck's interior decorator turned amateur sleuth Cheryl Draper, expressing that the murder she saw actually happened and not in her dream leads to a whole heap of humiliation and isolation.

My father acknowledged this theme, then pointed out another: Witness to Murder is an allegory of the period after WWI and before WWII when no one took the threat of rising Nazism seriously. The exploits of the Kaiser had been so grossly exaggerated by the propaganda machine that complacent Americans were hesitant to take Hitler seriously as a threat until they had to.

Witness to Murder is both these things, allegory of war ignorance and feminine oppression. But what it isn't is particularly great.

The cinematography bathes the beginning in the noirest shades of noir; first the outline of the branches over Stanwyck's fitfully sleeping face, and then plunging George Sanders's oily rat "ex"-Nazi Albert Richter in blackness as he waits with bated breath for an elevator to reach his level, possibly carrying policemen--which would be unfortunate, since he's dragging down the hall the body of the woman that Stanwyck saw him murder from across the street in her apartment, in the dead of night.

My dad is disdainful that George couldn't bother to carry the body.

The film keeps up this heart-pounding noir rhythm, and it mixes well with some of the more leisurely paced scenes. I've become so used to break-neck camera cuts in recent movies that it was rather a sigh of relief when Rowland would take time to show Cheryl enter her home, walk across to her room, pick up the phone, and dial. Little scenes like that do much to make us feel at home with a character.

Of course, that's not hard with an actress like Stanwyck. Her Cheryl Draper is a thankfully unromantic creation, free of soft focus dewyness or even that much sex appeal (one of the most unflattering hair-dos I've ever seen on an actress doesn't hurt). She and Sanders are, unsurprisingly, the principal reason to see this movie. Sanders is at his most perfectly Sandersish here, not even trying for a hint of sympathy. And Cheryl is his match, at least in force of personality.

He explicitly acknowledges this in one of the climactic scenes, trudging out the age-old "we are not so different, you and I; in a different life, we could have even been friends" villain/hero exchange. What's refreshing is that the heroic half is not some Harrison Ford or James Bond or Captain Kirk or Phillip Marlowe gumshoe, but a worn-out, prickly, beaten but not beat woman bordering on middle age. 

Rowland and screenwriter Chester Erskine (with uncredited work from Nunnally Johnson) go to great lengths to demonstrate how, well, single Cheryl is. The next we see of her after the beginning sequence when she witnesses the murder is her mailbox from the policemen's point of view:

The "miss" is scrawled on in someone's (presumably Cheryl's) hand, sticking out largely from the typed out names surrounding her. She wears her single status and her age like a scarlet letter that spells out "Anything She Says Must Be Filtered Through Crazy Spinster Speak." And it's this unfortunate label that keeps her from being similar to Sanders's Richter in ways that would be to her advantage in the story.

Once she calls the police, Gary Merrill as Detective Larry Mathews and Jesse White as his wisecracking rabbity partner Eddie enter the scene. A slower pair of policemen you'll seldom meet again, and Merrill is the male lead, for crying out loud. If you go by the war ignorance angle, Merrill is the stand-in for the Perfect American: willing at first to give the baddie the benefit of the doubt without evidence to back up Cheryl's claim, but is at last the one to step in and realize what's up.

From a feminist standpoint, he's...problematic. At best.

"You just dreamed it," he coos right away to Cheryl after a cursory sweep of suave Richter's apartment reveals nothing--and Larry himself didn't even glance around at all. He takes away Cheryl's power by downsizing the problem from something that actually happened to something just inside her head. But beyond any contextual study of his character, he's just not a very good judge of people. He thinks Richter is an all right guy (how casually he mentions Richter's an ex-Nazi!), he dismisses the murder victim as the "wrong kind of girl", and he's surprised that casually mentioning that Cheryl's fiance was killed in an air raid "still hurts." He means well in the end, but plenty of well-meaning lunks have said and done terrible, terrible things. 

His relationship with Cheryl is ill-defined. Their characters have zero romantic chemistry, yet she's obviously his primary concern throughout, even if to point out that she's hysterical and wrong. Sometimes I wonder if they're even supposed to be romantic interests--maybe, just maybe, he's able to chip away through his sexist blind spots and simply find her interesting--a good friend. I doubt a movie even as ahead of its time in a lot of ways as this one would go that outrageously far, but who knows.

Cheryl seems swayed at first by his dream line, but quickly smells bullshit. She knows, deep down, what she saw.

Like Richter, she's a quick thinker and crafty liar, up to a point. She manipulates her way into his apartment (what kind of landlord does Richter have? I'm sorry, that can't be legal), snoops around subtly, and unwisely swipes a piece of jewelry she figures must belong to the victim. 

And here's where her similarity to Richter ends: they are both dangerously impetuous, but whereas Richter has the uncanny ability to wear the mask, and create an affable persona to trick the world, Cheryl is incapable of lying about herself, about what kind of person she is. And this combined with her powerless position as a woman gives Richter the upper hand through most of the movie.

He is able to convince the head of the L.A. police department she's insane, helped by the fact he's smooth and collected and she's unable to convince those assembled she believes Richter innocent, because of course she doesn't. Once she realizes her freedom is at stake she loses all composure, disbelieving that an innocent person trying to do right would be the one taken away. Her hurried "I realize now you're not guilty I'm sorry" is delivered too quickly, too desperately, and she comes across as the perfect image of the hysterical older woman not able to separate fantasy from reality.

The scene in the sanitarium is an interesting glance into the world of downtrodden femmes driven mad by their own labels. Claire Carleton as May is particularly effective as a seemingly "hey, sister, listen here" moll type, until slowly the camera reveals the crazed desperation in her eyes, and she speaks about all the men in love with her, including the doctor keeping her prisoner here. Juanita Moore (credited as "Negress" here, stay classy, 1950s Hollywood) also makes an impression as the patient who finally pushes May too far singing bitterly of love lost.

While there's realism a-plenty in this scene, I can't say there's a lot of human sympathy, particularly when Cheryl shudders thinking about her companions a few days later when she's freed: "It was should have seen the ones I've been living with the past two days." There's much more sympathy for Cheryl's plight (after all, despite everything, she is not the "wrong kind of girl"). The scene before she's released when she has an interview with the clinically detached sanitarium doctor is the most realistic, chilling, and somehow heart-rending scene.

The spacious, sterile room the doctor meets her in is filmed with her entering from far away; she's isolated from the doctor, from this world she finds herself in. The bars outside the window are silhouetted over the chair meant for her.

Again Rowland wisely takes his time with this scene, though nothing of great shock or import occurs. Still our hearts are a little bit in our throats for Cheryl. She presents herself better here than in the police station, but you see the paralyzed nerves in her face and awkward stance as she looks for a reaction, any kind of reaction from the cold and emotionless doctor (well played by Lewis Martin). He simply recites his questions at a rapid-fire, probing pace, never making eye contact.

What's so unnerving is the sense that there must have been some real research (or even real experience) packed into this scene; it's so lacking in any physical drama that this sort of visceral suspense must have happened on a regular basis to mental patients under review--probably still happens.

The entire sanitarium sequence is a strange interlude, interrupting the action but heightening our sympathy and rage on Cheryl's behalf. The sequence also illustrates what it must have been like for mentally unstable people trying to get back on their feet, and how that process is even more psychologically grueling than any initial breakdown.

Unfortunately, once Cheryl returns the movie devolves straight into a cliche thriller melodrama. The climax is idiotic, with this heretofore intelligent heroine sacrificing what we know about her character for the ludicrous machinations of the plot--leaving the safety of a policewoman escort when Richter tries to throw her out her window and running the top of a construction site, with Richter right behind her (followed by an old-timey mob of befuddled townfolk! "Some crazy dame's tryin' to kill herself!").

However, this grab bag of camp and noir is perfect for Sanders to really sink his tiger fangs into. He's Hannibal Lecter without the cannibalism--classy, into the finer things, digs murder and thinks it's great, and totally cuckoo. The most ridiculous yet soul-satisfying scene, and one where Sanders is at his finest playing his stock villain type, is when Cheryl confronts him in his apartment. He knows she can't harm him now that she has a recorded history of mental illness with an established "idee fixe" on him. So he revels in telling her that, yes, he killed the Stewart woman because she was probably mucking up his marriage plans to a rich widow and because, y'know, as a fascist he likes killing inferior specimens. 

As his rambling monologue rapidly uncovers the depths of his insanity, the camera approaches him from a low angle, emphasizing Sanders's looming height and crazy eyes. He at last breaks into German and kisses Cheryl, in love with the "hate" in her eyes.

Sanders relishes this trash, and makes the whole nonsense come alive in the most deliciously hammy way conceivable.

His and Stanwyck's teamwork, along with the surprisingly progressive messages hidden here and there, makes Witness to Murder definitely worth seeing. That the movie shifts away from a psychoanalytical take on the Rear Window plot and nosedives into standard action mode, and that some of these progressive themes are either ham-handed or made null by the poor execution or lack of real sympathy, keeps it from being a truly memorable or good movie.

But just take a look at George Sanders's crazy eyes and tell me you don't want to see this movie. You can't, can you? I knew it.

Thanks for this opportunity to yak about Babs and weird film noir, Aubyn! I have a packed rest of this week ahead of me, but come the weekend, I hope to sit down, read the rest of the surely wonderful posts about Missy, and comment away.