Story: When Cheryl (Barbara Stanwyck) went to shut one of her windows, she didn’t expect to see much at all, let alone a murder. But as she closed the window, she could see clearly into her neighbor’s house and right in front of her eyes, there was a murder. Albert (George Sanders) was arguing with a woman and soon after, began to choke her until she collapsed. As soon as she gets her bearings, Cheryl phones the police and reports the crime, which leads to the police arriving on scene with sirens and lights on high, which Albert notices. By the time the cops knock on his door to ask some questions, Albert has had time to conceal his actions and after the police have a look around, they decide Cheryl must have been confused about what she saw. But was she just mistaken or overly tired, or is she living with a killer for a neighbor?
Entertainment Value: If this premise sounds familiar, Witness to Murder does share some threads with Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window. While Rear Window would become a celebrated classic, Witness to Murder wasn’t as fortunate, though it is a solid picture. I mean, Barbara Stanwyck and some film noir vibes? I would watch that anytime and while the movie has some issues, it is very watchable and some interesting elements. The narrative is solid for the most part, though some of the gaslighting touches seem out of place, given the rest of the script. Stanwyck’s Cheryl is not a soft target and the story at least opens the door for people to see she’s telling the truth, so some narrative stretches don’t work that well, given those issues. Despite those concerns, overall the story is well written and interesting, especially with such a strong lead and smarmy villain. The pace is good and the plot unfolds at a nice clip, while allowing space for the tension to ratchet up when needed. I wouldn’t put this alongside the top tier film noir or thrillers, but Witness to Murder is a solid watch.
As she is one of my absolute favorite performers, I wasn’t surprised that Barbara Stanwyck is quite good here, though of course, I am biased. I know some have critiqued her casting, since she is hardly the damsel in distress the story calls for, but I think Stanwyck does what she often does, show strength, but also a vulnerable side. So while she has a commanding presence, she is not invincible or incapable of making the role work, she just does so in her signature style. If you remove the oddly chosen gaslighting sequences, that pretty much solves those concerns, since they feel out of place, but even in those scenes, Stanwyck shines. And I do think she shows a vulnerable side, a subtle one perhaps, especially by the usual standards, but enough to serve the character, to be sure. George Sanders has a good turn here as well, as the slick villain that torments Stanwyck. The cast also includes Jesse White, Harry Shannon, Gary Merrill, and Claire Carleton.