Format: Noir Alley on DVR
Director: Roy Rowland
I think Jamie has become a full Barbara Stanwyck fangirl, and that's a feature, not a bug. So, I used that to leverage spending our Saturday night watching Witness to Murder (1954), a great small-scale thriller with two terrific leads in Stanwyck and George Sanders - an actor I realize I may see in more movies by happenstance than anyone else.
Our plot seems derived from Rear Window, but this movie came out just before the Hitchcock classic, and the structure is very different. Before the credits finish rolling, Stanwyck awakens in the night and happens to look across the way out her window just in time to see a neighbor choking a woman to death. Naturally, she calls the police, but the murderer, George Sanders, has figured what's happening and manages to stash the body when the cops drop by.
From here it's a game of cat and mouse, with Stanwyck certain of what she saw, but with no evidence to back her up and Sanders out-maneuvering her, and, in fact, beginning to plot against her.
The real villain of the movie is, curiously, 1950's attitudes about gender roles and women and their crazy lady brains not being good like man brains. Curiosuly, this is focused through our upright cop/ love interest played by Gary Merrill (who never actually seems worthy of the attention of Stanwyck, but we'll just let that one go), as well as his parter played by Jesse White and the police Captain. Sanders is able to leverage their "well, she has a crazy lady brain" predisposition against Stanwyck repeatedly and to to great effect.
Muller took time in his post-movie wrap up to give modern critics a bit a knuckle-wrap for calling the movie "unrealistic", and I can't be sure how I would have thought of the film had he not made sure we thought hard on this before and after. But here's what I know (SPOILERS) - putting inconveniently brash or argumentative spouses and children in psych wards was all the rage for a good chunk of the 20th century. With psychology on the rise in post-war America, and using science as a blunt instrument, it didn't take much to get someone tossed in a hospital.
It's played up for dramatic effect, I guess, but I think the most frustrating bit is that Stanwyck keeps cozying up to the detective who "wants to believe her", but just can't. And, frankly, the script and Sanders himself do a great job of giving him the upper hand as the devious sociopath versus Stanwyck just being smart and plucky. But, yeah, you want to have Stanwyck just give that cop the business, and it just doesn't happen.
IE: I agree with Muller that this movie is not "unrealistic" in how folks dismiss a single, late-night witness to a murder that doesn't appear to have happened to a body that no one has seen.
You don't need me to tell you Stanwyck is great in this, or that Sanders is terriific as the killer (and, btw, he's a Nazi, too!). The direction is fine, but with John Alton as the DP, the movie looks like a million bucks based on some of those set-ups alone.
I find myself digging thrillers like this. This same script would have turned into something tedious by the late 1980's and through to today, with a post, Athony Hopkins killer and a chase scene that would go on for, like, a year. I feel like Crawford's Sudden Fear is in a similar vein of small-scale thrillers from this era, or even Lupino and Ryan in Beware, My Lovely.
Here's to hoping Jamie continues to volunteer her time for more Stanwyck pictures, because Barbara made, like, 100 movies. I'm sure we'll keep finding good stuff.