Written by producer Chester Erskine, with a pungent assist from uncredited Nunnally Johnson, Witness to Murder is a marvelous little thriller topped by a finale that moves the viewer in the direction of cardiac arrest. Barbara Stanwyck gives an exceptionally fine, delicately nuanced performance as Cheryl Draper, a forthright interior decorator and painter in Los Angeles who makes the mistake of phoning the police after witnessing the murder of a young woman late at night in an apartment across from hers. No one believes her; the accused is an author and minor celebrity, and there is no sign of any mayhem having happened in his apartment. Moreover, Albert Richter (George Sanders, chilling) manipulates behind the scenes to conjure “evidence” of Cheryl’s mental instability: a mirror-image of the other evidence, of the murder he committed, that he has succeeded in hiding from view. Cheryl is thus placed in the hellish observation ward of a mental hospital.
What a phenomenal evocation of the U.S. during the Red Scare of the 1950s—a point underscored by Richter’s allegiance to Nazism. His murder victim is the floozie who might spoil his onward-and-upward plan to marry a rich socialite who could bankroll his dream of a Nazi America.
We more or less must take on faith Cheryl’s romance with the investigating cop who studies law at night, as all this is lightly sketched in. But it is Cheryl who draws our fascination and interest, and admiration, as she wages an interior battle back and forth between believing in what she saw and accepting the possibility she only imagined what she saw. The apparatus of officialdom has her questioning her own sanity. This, of course, is how countless citizens felt in the time of Tricky Dick and Joe McCarthy.
And that finale: Richter’s pursuit of Cheryl, in the dark of night, up the perilous under-construction urban high-rise that is a potent symbol for postwar America.
Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, 1953) directed; the brilliant score is by Herschel Burke Gilbert; the shadowy black-and-white—mostly eerily gray—cinematography, by John Alton.
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