WITNESS TO MURDER, was released in 1954, just a couple of months prior to the release of Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW. The films share a similar theme, an innocent person who accidentally witnesses a murder, but it's the Hitchcock version that stands as a masterpiece while WITNESS is merely a so-so suspense film.
Although the film itself is routine, there are two things that stand out about WITNESS TO MURDER. The first is the brilliant black and white cinematography by John Alton. Alton was a master of light and dark, of shadows and atmosphere and his work here is a pleasure to watch. The second thing that's great about WITNESS is the performance by George Sanders as a murderous ex-Nazi. Sanders, one of my favorite actors, is always a treat to watch and he's at his silkiest, most urbanely evil best here.
Interior designer Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) witnesses a murder in an apartment house across from hers one night. She sees Albert Richter (Sanders), kill a young woman. Cheryl immediately calls the police, who send two detectives, Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Sgt. Eddie Vincent (Jesse (Maytag repairman) White) to investigate. Of course, Richter has covered up all evidence of a crime and the cops tell Cheryl she dreamt the whole thing.
Cheryl know otherwise and continues to investigate on her own. Richter counter attacks through a series of clever moves, all of which are designed to "gaslight" Cheryl and cause her to doubt her own sanity.
She's eventually placed into a mental ward by the police which raises a big red flag in the narrative. Without the presence of an attorney or a medical expert of any kind, Richter, Lt. Mathews and police Captain Donnelly (Harry Shannon), just up and commit Cheryl to a psych ward. What about due process? A hearing of some kind before a judge? The men think this woman is crazy so off she goes to the loony bin? I know it's all part of the plot of a routine thriller but the whole sequence struck me as odd and outlandish.
Cheryl is eventually released but her sanity is now firmly in doubt. Richter confesses his crime to her because he knows that now that she's "crazy", no one will believe her. He plots to kill her and make it look like a suicide which leads to the thrilling climax which involves a race to the top of an under construction skyscraper (although the chase takes place at night, all exterior shots of the building are in daylight), a race which prefigures a similar climax in Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958). A furious fight ensues, Richter falls to his death and Cheryl and Lt. Mathews embrace. Yeah, sure, like she can be in love with the guy who sent her to the nut house.
WITNESS TO MURDER was written by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson and directed by Roy Rowland. The direction is solid but it's that pesky script that I have problems with. On a fun note, a young Claude Akins appears in a brief scene as a uniformed police officer while Dick Elliott (who played Mayor Pike on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), has a small part as an apartment building manager.
WITNESS TO MURDER recalls SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948), another Stanwyck film involving a woman stumbling into a murder and while WITNESS is a nice little time killer, it suffers in comparison REAR WINDOW. It's a case of two remarkably similar films being released too close to one another.