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Witness to Murder
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by Jay Seaver

"Must... avoid... "Witless"... joke..."
2 stars

"Witness to Murder" is campy fun when it's at its best. Unfortunately, those moments don't come nearly as often as one might hope, and what comes in between is, in addition to being silly, a little mean-spirited. What makes it worse is that the filmmakers seem to honestly think they're serving up a lovely little romance.

It all starts when lonely interior decorator Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) sees a murder committed in the building across the street. The killer, one Albert Richter (George Sanders), gets lucky in that there's an empty apartment next to his where the body can conveniently be stored until such time as he can dispose of it, and sets about eliminating the forensic evidence, so that when Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) arrives with Cheryl in tow, he appears to have nothing to hide. Cheryl isn't going to let it go, no matter how much everyone tells her she's imagining things, so Richter sets out to eliminate her. Since killing her right away would look suspicious, he takes care to first make her appear to be crazy - once her fragile mental state is established, no-one will investigate a "suicide" too closely.

That's not a bad little story for a piece of fifties pulp fiction, and if Stanwyck had been something like ten or twenty years younger, she would have been the perfect for this. Or, alternately, the screenplay could have made the character closer to Stanwyck's own age. Instead, we're told that she was in college when her fiancé was killed in the war, which would (in 1954) make her character in her late twenties or early thirties, which Stanwyck clearly isn't. She tries to play Cheryl as an ingenue when making her a cynical, somewhat bitter middle-aged woman people are starting to think of as a spinster might have worked better. Admittedly, that might have made the love story a little problematical, or at least unusual.

Then again, that may not have been a wholly bad thing. Aside from Mathews trying to act paternal despite Stanwyck being eight years Merrill's senior (the pairing was likely not a problem for Merrill, who in real life was married to older woman Bette Davis), Cheryl isn't exactly warm when Mathews meets her. The way he asks her out seems to come out of left field, as well as seeming kind of inappropriate on a couple of levels - should a detective really be hitting on someone who just came in to report a crime, let alone be so presumptive about it? He seems to spend almost as much time convincing the woman he claims to love that she's delusional as trying to substantiate her claims. Hey, maybe crazy girls are just his kink, although I don't get that impression; Merrill plays Mathews as pretty upstanding and whitebread, a dedicated detective taking law classes at night, and it might have been a more interesting movie if he had played up the idea that Mathews was interested in Cheryl because he thought she was crazy.

While the film's heroine and hero often come across as rather less than they should, George Sanders is a deliciously debonair villain, the type of amoral monster who clearly gets a kick out of being one step ahead of Cheryl the police even as he dislikes the amount of work it requires. He does all the classic movie villain threats well when paired with Stanwyck, from feigned innocence to smiling threats to laying out his evil plan. At times, it seems Sanders is the only person involved who realizes just how silly some of what's going on is, and is willing to enjoy the silliness

It's a shame he didn't clue the rest of the cast and crew in, because their earnestness is almost suffocating. Director Roy Rowland and writer/producer Chester Erskine never give any indication at all that they might consider the romance between Cheryl Draper and Lawrence Mathews weird, and Cheryl's overnight visit to a mental asylum feels like it might be either a serious attempt at decrying the conditions in such places or a parody of the same. Either way, it misfires. About the only time they seem to really recognize the potential for campy goodness is when Richter reveals himself to Cheryl as a former Nazi who sees the Reich rising again; that's as deliciously over-the-top as you can get, and the moment is milked for all it's worth.

I wish more of the movie was. Maybe not to the point where it was a straight comedy, or even more than occasionally darkly funny, but it could certainly afford to run with the weird a little more than it does.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15052&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/08/06 21:29:44
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User Comments

8/20/08 brian Deadly dull dialogue dooms dorky detection. 2 stars
7/03/08 Zyg Ignorant review. Stanwyck was correct age for script. Watch it again. 5 stars
9/12/06 Edward Connell Insightfully educating with powerful acting will keep you watching and wondering. 5 stars
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