Spoiler Alert! I’m pretty much going to recount the entire plot of Witness to Murder, including the dramatic climax.
I did not think Witness to Murder (1954) was going to be particularly cheesy when I saw that it starred Barbara Stanwyck, but you never know. They were still cranking out movies at a pretty good pace in the ’50s. They couldn’t all be cinematic masterpieces.
Things start right out excitingly with Stanwyck looking out her window to witness a murder (hence, the title) in an apartment across the street. She really has quite a good view. Some may carp over a murderer acting in front of an open window with the lights on, but, hey, it almost worked for Raymond Burr in Rear Window. Anyways, when we meet the murderer, played by George Sanders, we quickly learn that he is egotistical enough to feel he can get away with anything.
Stanwyck quite sensibly calls the police. This is about the last sensible thing she does, but we can’t really complain about that, because the movie would have been much shorter otherwise. Also, Sanders would have probably gotten away with murder and that character is definitely not likable enough for us to want that to happen.
Gary Merrill and Jesse White play the cops that show up to investigate. White doesn’t really have much of a part. His presence at least enabled me to make a couple of bad jokes about the Maytag repairman, but I must also say, kind of a waste of a good comedic actor.
Sanders is one of those lucky movie murderers who is easily able to cover his tracks. He has one bad moment when he freezes, mid-drag while moving the body, to stare at the elevator dial, afraid the cops are in it. Which struck me as a little silly. I guess I don’t think like a movie murderer, but if I’m dragging a dead body by the elevator and think the cops might be on it, I think I would be more likely do drag the body FASTER, not stand staring at the elevator to see if I’m right.
Now that I’m pondering the point, though, it occurs to me that perhaps he thought the dead lady’s high heels would ka-thunk on the floor and the cops would hear. Maybe he was trying to come up with a good story, one that might begin, “Thank God you’re here! Look what I just found!” We’ll never know, because the elevator passes by, and Sanders is able to stash the body in a handily located empty apartment (did I mention he’s a lucky murderer?) and change into pajamas in time to open the door to the cops, all sleepy-eyed innocence.
The cops are easily convinced that Stanwyck dreamed the whole thing. They are later on very amenable to being convinced that she’s crazy. Stanwyck obligingly has hysterics when confronted with Sanders’ trumped up evidence, landing herself in the loony bin.
I was a little disappointed she doesn’t spend more time in the Snake Pit (it isn’t really very snakey or even very pitty, but I thought I’d throw in another old movie reference to sound more erudite) (did it work?). For one thing, she might have reformed things, like that lady did in Bedlam (perhaps you read my blog post about that movie).
She gets sprung fairly quickly and easily, I believe due to the good offices of Merrill. You may have guessed the two of them fall in love. I always enjoy a love interest, especially when the guy falls for a girl who has a little on the ball, which Stanwyck does, even though the script calls for some typical stupid movie female behavior.
Which brings us to the dramatic climax.
OK, Stanwyck has figured out how Sanders broke into her apartment to type the poison pen letters that convinced the cops she was crazy (yeah, I didn’t explain that part very well earlier, but I’m sure you can keep up). However, she does not, for example, call an all-night locksmith to put in a dead bolt or even spend the night with a girlfriend (actually, I’m not sure Stanwyck has any girlfriends in this; the producers didn’t really spend a lot on minor characters). Well, I suppose one can’t think of everything. She is awfully tired, having not gotten a lot of sleep in the loony bin.
Anyways, guess who’s waiting for her in the bedroom, having already typed a fake suicide note. Stop! As I type this in, I suddenly say, “Waaaait a minute!” The police have Stanwyck’s typewriter. They took it to prove she typed the poison pen letters. Either they nicely put it back rather than properly in the evidence room, or Sanders, in addition to being lucky, is foresighted enough to have ALREADY typed the note. But I digress.
Sanders’ plan is to pitch Stanwyck out the window. Suddenly a lady cop shows up, sent by Merrill to check on Stanwyck. Sanders is, of course, ready with his story, that he was trying to STOP this poor, suicidal crazy woman. Does Stanwyck realize she is now safe? Sanders can’t possibly thrown her out the window and pretend it’s suicide with a lady cop standing right there, for heavens’ sake!
In her second biggest Stupid Movie Female Move of the picture (stand by for number one), Stanwyck runs away screaming. Nobody seems to believe that the guy chasing her wants to kill her, but for some reason they all join the chase. Soon a whole crowd is after her. Boy, can that woman move in a pair of high heeled pumps! Sanders is the only one who can keep up with her!
Then she does the single, absolute biggest Stupid Movie Female Move imaginable: she runs all by herself into a deserted high rise building, all the way up all the stairs and OUT ONTO THE ROOF!!! What a good place to go when you are running away from a man who wants to throw you out of a building and pretend it’s suicide.
It’s a good thing this was the climax, because I was ready to wash my hands of the Stanwyck character after that.
Predictably, nobody in the busybody crowd follows them up the stairs. Equally predictably, Merrill arrives on the scene, armed with Proof that Sanders is a killer. I don’t suppose anybody will be surprised to know that Merrill’s proof is a spurious as the stuff he’s been rejecting from Stanwyck all through the picture.
No matter. This is a movie, he’s the hero, and he’s going to save the day. I didn’t need to include another spoiler alert before I told you that, did I?