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Monday, December 07, 2020

Depends On The Mood You're In ...


Joy of Over-Thinking Witness To Murder (1954)

On the surface a humble noir to relax with, Witness To Murder has undetected values, a shovel for ore not noted before, subtleties in melodrama ignored because we assume melodrama wasn’t meant to be subtle. Could be my dig is plain OCD to be dealt with like bug house where inmates and staff take charge of B. Stanwyck (“Show Mr. Peabody to the library, please”). I choose third option of movies, even so-called ordinary ones, finding fresh life thanks to clarity of Blu-Ray, an advance not to be taken for granted. Seeing Witness To Murder before, w/ camera great John Alton listed in credits, I’d say to myself or companions, Bet this looked great in the theatre, then pretend my 16mm or square-frame video could approach what 1954 got. Experience now is closer to theirs, so no longer do we mere-imagine visual luster this and pictures like it had. Easier then to be fully immersed, as these rambling notes will attest.

Witness To Murder
comes to its point fast, Barbara Stanwyck’s peep at the deed but thirty seconds in, a best basis I’ve seen for showmen saying “Please See This Picture From The Beginning.” Witness setup is captivating … imagine looking out from your apartment to see George Sanders strangling someone in his. Loneliness factors always into apartment dwelling, in movies if not in life. You’re close to people, often lots of people, and under a same roof even as most stay strangers, unless they know you know they’ve committed a crime, such as case with Sanders vis a vis Stanwyck, though for moments I thought what a pity these two couldn’t hit it off and relieve one another’s isolation. A twist occurs to me ... What if BS started off indignant over the killing, became attracted to suave Sanders in spite of herself, him increasingly fascinated, but torn between deepening regard and a need to protect himself by getting rid of the one eyewitness who could tie a noose.

To persist in flight of fancy, if the characters weren’t compatible, what of actors playing them? Sanders/Stanwyck were at liberty in 1954. Did they think, even fleetingly, of hooking up? Stranger things had happened, for both in fact, BS in recent boyish embrace of Robert Wagner (see his book), GS lately shed of one Gabor, years later to align with another. Think of affairs actors indulged that no one ever knew about. Doris Day teased memoir readers by alluding to long involvement with a name equal in bigness to herself, but we never learned who it was (has his ID yet been revealed?). Witness To Murder Sanders is believable as one who could attract a mistress, then coolly dispose of her once usefulness is ended. Was there aspect of George that suggested offscreen policy along these lines? He was smooth, urbane, could be sinister, a big man nearly six foot three, Stanwyck at five foot five helpless as a bug ‘neath Sanders shoe, her mouthing-off, especially where they are alone in rooms, giving off twice the current. I enjoy killers who admit, ne regale in, their crime, knowing a listener, constrained by plot devising, can do nothing about it. That happens in Witness To Murder, Stanwyck declared nuts for trusting her eyes.

Melodrama, the best of it, can run on six-cylinders and still tell incidental truths of life. Stanwyck as “Cheryl Draper” is a career woman as 50’s defined, success at her job no compensation for living alone and not liking it. Being sans a man is a loser’s route, so never mind how good a commercial artist she is. Like spinster schoolteachers of the day, Cheryl once had a love lost in the war, an alibi since for blocking passes. What’s a determined Gary Merrill to do, him the police detective investigating her titled trouble, discovering via a personal interest just how bereft a bachelor gal’s circumstance can be. Her own worst enemy it seems, Cheryl even turns down “Larry Mathews” invite for dinner in favor of three-day old reheated roast. She gets further tip of “Albert Richter” (Sanders) guilt while alone at a drug store counter with her drab sandwich, seeing Richter buy newspapers w/ headline of police discovering his murder victim, a plot point neatly laid, finer point made of Cheryl’s single life being an empty one (hers a familiar face to the counter attendant).

Cheryl distancing Larry is pure wrongheadedness so far as we’re shown, proof again how/why women got so neurotic for turning down approach by eligible men. Speaking of unfairness, or maybe recognition of reality in life, we never think of Merrill’s Larry as a loser, him also alone, difference being he is always open to a woman where he can find her, “on the make” a healthy status so far as movies presented it. Heck of a double standard in those irresistible forces and immovable objects, but accurate reflection of how Hollywood saw life as lived in 1954. Are attitudes still like this? I bet so, no matter how much folks imagine we have “progressed.” Viewers titter uneasily at old movie scenes that sock them where they live. What if 50’s truth remains largely so, and we’ve been manipulated to think otherwise? So much of what earlier film explored will not get an airing again. Hid corners help even outlandish thrillers to breathe, plus conviction a Stanwyck brought them. She is for me the supreme post-war survivor of hothouse actresses. There is a book on her by Victoria Wilson, 1056 pages even as account goes only to 1940, so lots more life to cover in volume two, tempting me to wait till I can read the whole.

Stanwyck was strong, could portray (temporary) helpless. We think at times she will crack under Witness stress. Cheryl is eased into head treatment for “delusion” of seeing murder, a could-happen-to-anybody the actress sells as fate for those at mercy of medicos. There is a potent scene of Cheryl telling her plight to psych staffers and them not hearing a word she says. Melodrama is said to be mere exaggeration of trouble life hands out, trick is not to exaggerate by much. Watch the trailer (included on Kino’s Blu-Ray) to hear Stanwyck narrate Witness way out of far-fetch the theme implies. Her forthright pitch makes the yarn seem fact-based. Workmanlike Gary Merrill is doubting but devoted, his Larry telling Cheryl “you’re too nice a girl …” to believe what she (and we) saw. Merrill was one of those actors who would gesture for audience benefit rather than to or with other players, for instance: Cheryl gets out of his car, says they must not see each other again, walks away, leaving Larry/Gary in the driver’s seat of an empty vehicle, facing the camera, at which point he shrugs a gamut from confused, to perplexed, to frustrated. Now how many of us “act” such reaction when we are alone, unless, of course, we are actors? OK shorthand for movies, but wouldn’t we think it strange to see someone by him/herself on a street, shrugging, registering emotion, for no good, apparent reason? I wonder if performance coaches abide this trick, let alone endorse or advise students to use it. First time I noted application was Agnes Moorehead in one of those Sirk pictures she did with Jane Wyman: There’s the camera, so here’s my shrug.

Lastly, but not least, comes the Albert Richter character, described by Larry/Gary as “a minor big wig in Hitler’s culture system, (who) saw the end coming, escaped to Switzerland, then came back, got himself de-Nazified in court, came to the US, and took out his first papers.” Now there was loaded narrative dice to put me wondering how many Nazis, “big wig” or otherwise, landed stateside after the war and prospered since. Reason this made an impression was coincidence of a book I ordered, Gods, Graves, & Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, published first in 1951, many reprints after, including an expanded second edition in 1967. C.W. Ceram’s book was recognized as a first popular account of historic exploration, and credited as basis for MGM’s Valley of the Kings in 1954, latter being how I became aware of it.

Came the cold splash, “C.W. Ceram” actually Kurt Wilhelm Marek, born in Berlin (1915), and later a propagandist for the Third Reich, a number of his books to promote the Nazi cause. 
Marek/Ceram wrote Gods, Graves, & Scholars in German (1949), saw it translated to 28 languages, with five million copies sold. Marek/Ceram and his wife moved to Woodstock, New York, where he’d pen further volumes on archaeology. “Albert Richter” is a published author, respected if not widely read as was Merek/Ceram. Was the latter also “denazified”? To denazify, says Webster’s, is “to rid of Nazism and its influence.” Occupation forces in Germany had a massive job doing that, overwhelming in fact. They finally permitted the Germans to investigate other Germans, a procedure many called inadequate toward uprooting Reich adherents. What to do, however, with so many cases to evaluate? (hundreds of thousands, with limited resource to deal with them) A too-broad topic to fully explore here, but there are plentiful books about it, my curiosity roused by what steps it took for once-committed Nazis to enter the US, presumably gain citizenship, and make a success for themselves. I’ve known a long time about rocket experts who made the jump (a few prominent in Disneyland space exploration episodes). “Albert Richter” had plenty of company, it seems.

As if once were not enough, as if death needed a double, here is Greenbriar on Witness To Murder from 2007, along with small noirs Cry Danger!, Shield For Murder, and The Killer Is Loose


Blogger Kevin K. said...

C.W. Ceram! Holy cow, I had a book he wrote titled "Archeology of Cinema", about the earliest days of movies from its invention to roughly 1900. It was quite a serious tome, as if written by a professor of film studies who never left his house except to visit a revival house. The book flap notes mentioned what his real name was. (The pen-name was either clever or very lazy.) I had no idea he was a Nazi. Boy, the stuff you learn on Greenbriar!

By the way, I never shrug in public, but have been known to shake my head in disgust.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Would say WITNESS cemented me as a fan of Missy Stanwyck. Remember seeing her previously in the movies but not the titles of the movies. The only one that pops up in my mind many decades later is TITANIC, courtesy of spending a Saturday night with NBC.

Had not seen DOUBLE INDEMNITY prior to the TV late show viewing of WITNESS back in the early days of hippies and Beatles.

Late spring/early summer had our sliding glass patio door open at 11:30 pm when the feature started. I turned off all the lights and watched as a gentle breeze moved the drapes.

When Missy saw George do his dastardly deed, I felt as if I was standing with her.

WITNESS has been a guilty pleasure of mine since that night loaded with atmosphere.

8:15 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks once again for the hard work you put into your blog. Great reading! Your description of Cheryl Draper's life reminded me of Arthur Hunnicut's description of Maureen O'Sullivan in 'The Tall T'; "She was scheduled to be an old maid...".

Anyone interested in the apartments location, here they are:

9:19 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Thanks, MikeD, for the location photos. Really neat.

8:26 AM  

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