Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worth a Look: Stanwyck's "Witness to Murder"

If you ask old movie buffs for a list of Barbara Stanwyck's ten best films, 1954's Witness to Murder isn't likely to make the cut, and I won't argue that it should. But this lesser- known suspense film offers plenty of diversion for anyone willing to give it a look.

With a running time of only 82 minutes, there's little time to waste in telling a story. Witness to Murder is up and running from the get-go, as Los Angeles dress designer Cheryl Draper (Stanwyck) looks out her window one night to see her neighbor across the way, Alfred Richter (George Sanders), throttling a woman to death. With only moments to spare, Richter drags the body to a vacant apartment nearby, changes quickly into nightclothes, and acts convincingly bewildered when the police show up to check out Miss Draper's story. Police Lieutenant Larry Mathews (Gary Merrill) tries to soothe Miss Draper, convinced she must have woken abruptly from a bad dream and mistaken it for reality, but she knows what she saw. When she doesn't seem inclined to let the mystery drop, the seemingly suave and cultured Richter decides to take no chances on putting this inconvenient witness to his crime out of commission.

Arrestingly photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Alton, Witness to Murder benefits from strong performances in its lead roles, and a brisk pace that keeps you watching. Fans of All About Eve will enjoy seeing Sanders and Merrill together again, and there are also some smart performances in the supporting cast. When Cheryl Draper's crusade against her nefarious neighbor earns her a brief stay in the psych ward, her fellow patients are memorably etched by the fine character actresses Adeline De Walt Reynolds, Claire Carleton, and -- five years before Imitation of Life -- Juanita Moore, whose lines consist almost entirely of the song she can't stop singing. Since all things around here lately lead to Joan Davis, I also noticed Dick Elliott, who turned up often on I Married Joan, as an apartment manager who unwittingly gives Stanwyck's character a vital clue to the mysterious murder.

When your viewing pleasures consist mostly of the films and television shows of an earlier era, there's always a concern that the well will run dry, that you will have seen "everything good." It's a treat to come across a movie like this one, that proves there are still new discoveries to be made.

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