Witness to Murder: When Movies Go Wrong

Witness to Murder (1954), directed by Roy Rowland, might have singlehandedly postponed second-wave feminism in America. Its message of men being right and women being wrong is evident all throughout the film. The plot concerns its female protagonist, Barbara Stanwyck, witnessing George Sanders killing a woman in the apartment across the street. She immediately phones the police, who go to Sanders’ apartment and stupidly tell him that Stanwyck called them about what she saw. Now that Sanders knows who saw him and how the situation will play out, he is able to manipulate both the police and Stanwyck into convincing her that what she thought she saw was a dream and that she’s actually insane.

The lead detective tries to convince Stanwyck that, with or without hard evidence, the police can’t even suspect a person. (Clearly things have changed now that we have “Law & Order: SVU.”) Not even the knowledge that Sanders used to be a Nazi convinces Merrill to check into the matter further. It is important to note that Stanwyck, who was approximately 46 years old when the film was shot, is always referred to by men as a “girl” rather than a woman, even though she’s older than both Gary Merrill and Jesse White, who play the two detectives on the case. Everything Stanwyck does is undermined by male authority figures.

Sanders is so effective at making Stanwyck seem insane that the police actually agree to send her to a mental hospital; in fact, they do so by physical force. (Can they do that? Is that even legal?) The hospital scene is like a bad Snake Pit retread, complete with Claire Carleton as a wisecracking streetwalker and Juanita Moore – credited as “Negress” – singing the same song over and over. Naturally, Stanwyck’s brusque doctor asks her if she “gets hysterical often”; even though it’s no longer Victorian times, women are still accused of “hysteria” no matter how sane and logical they really are. Ironically, murderous Sanders is the only man who recognizes Stanwyck as the intelligent woman that she is.

Throughout the film, Merrill often tells Stanwyck to “stop thinking” about the murder. He instead entreats her to think about him, since romance and the eventuality of marriage/domestication would be better suited to a woman’s brain. It occurred to me during this scene, seeing Stanwyck and Merrill side by side, that she was eight years older than him. That was the same age difference between Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and yet Witness to Murder makes it seem as though Stanwyck is, if anything, younger than Merrill since he’s the character with all the power.

Like another film that came out a few months later in 1954 – Rear Window – Stanwyck engages in voyeurism, spying on Sanders.

Here we see the two detectives in the murdered woman’s apartment, judging her based on her choice of reading material.

Even after the detectives realize that Sanders is the killer, they never admit being wrong or apologize to Stanwyck, nor do they say sorry for sticking her in a mental hospital. (Men are, of course, above reproach.) I won’t spoil the very end, but the scenario shows Stanwyck as a damsel in distress. Instead of playing the bold, take-the-bull-by-the-horns woman of so many other 50s films like The Furies, Clash by Night and Forty Guns, Stanwyck is reduced to needing to be saved by “hero” Merrill. (Ugh.) If you get a chance, watch Witness to Murder either on Netflix Instant or in a fuzzier upload on YouTube, just to see how far we’ve come since 1954.

P.S. If you get a chance, read Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, an excellent book by Susan J. Douglas. The essays, all of which have elements of humor, discuss problems experienced by American women in the twentieth century with regard to images proliferated by the media and in pop culture. I thought of the book more than once while watching Witness to Murder.

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