Here’s an experiment. Tonight, long after midnight, haul yourself out of bed and into the street and, for a minute or two, scream bloody murder. What would happen? Would concerned neighbors call the cops? Would patriots dash out with their guns loaded? Would anyone even hear you over their white-noise machines and noise-canceling headphones?
For 50 years now, one particular case of nighttime screaming has been held up as evidence that Americans — and New Yorkers especially — are monsters of apathy and self-involvement. You know the case, even if you don’t know the names. Long before dawn on the morning of March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. As the Times told the story soon after, precisely 38 people witnessed the crime, which took place over an agonizing 35 minutes, but nobody intervened or even called the police.
News of this set off the sort of hand-wringing concern-trollism that our mass news media has always been best at: What does such pitiless indifference say about us as a people? As James D. Solomon’s compelling and sometimes frustrating doc The Witness makes clear, it turns out that what the case actually tells us isn’t that we live lives of blinkered fear. It’s that we’re gullible as hell.
Solomon follows Genovese’s younger brother William in his attempt to understand this quite literally incredible tale. We see William track down surviving witnesses from the original police reports, and he pretty quickly discovers — as journalists and historians have in recent years suggested — that the original reporting greatly exaggerated the reality. What has often been called 38 eyewitnesses was mostly people who heard a scream in the night. Some report looking out the window, seeing nothing, and then trying to get back to sleep. Another says she actually called the police — and was told that it had already been reported.
Complicating the we’re-all-awful narrative: Moseley assaulted Genovese twice, first on the street and then, later, in the vestibule of her building, at a time when few people would be passing by. Complicating it further: One resident friendly with the victim claims to have discovered the body and held it as the life drained out.
None of that is verifiable, of course, especially now that the witnesses have endured a half-century of being shamed in the name of anecdote-driven sociology and editorializing. And how much of this film is performance Solomon leaves you to suss out — it certainly is structured along the lines of a Hollywood drama, with one driven man digging into the past for truths some might prefer to remain un-dug. William and Solomon, though, are persuasive on the main point, that the murder could not have been observed in the way it has long been popularly assumed.
With that cleared up, Solomon digs in deeper — and gets more interesting. The narrative here is dual: As Solomon tells us the story of William’s investigation, we’re also discovering the story of William’s life. (Avoid The Witness if you’re angered by docs that slowly tease out crucial information in the interest of suspense.) The fact that he has lost his legs goes unmentioned for much of the film, even as we watch him drive his van, wheel his chair, and climb up staircases on his hands. It’s clear he’s lived with grief and trauma beyond the famous murder — and it’s also clear that that murder haunts him perhaps more than the explosion in Vietnam that still affects his every movement. Or at least that’s what Solomon seems to want us to think — the psychology here is often noir-thriller reductive.
Solomon shows us William and his family, discussing the case. It’s clear that William’s brothers think his obsession might not be healthy, especially once he starts looking into interviewing Moseley, the murderer, still serving time in Albany.
The film is at its best when William is at his: meeting the people who once knew Kitty. Turns out she had some secrets, including an affair with her roommate, a young woman — which is a surprise to the family, who had no idea Kitty was gay. The moving high point of The Witness is William’s interview with that roommate, a sequence rendered in stirring animation by the Moth Collective. (The interviewee declined to be filmed.) Fifty years on, Genovese’s last lover still feels somewhat freshly bereaved — she’s lost as much as William has, maybe even more: Not long after the killing, Genovese’s father spirited away from that apartment a puppy that Genovese had bought for the roommate. William tells her that, yes, that puppy appeared at his own house around that time, and that — what else can he say? — he is sorry for his family. Both brother and lover sound sad and stirred, relishing this rare chance to commiserate.
Less cathartic is an encounter with Moseley’s son, a reverend who will jolt you with how differently his family sees this crime — and how close he comes to saying that maybe Genovese almost deserved it. That scene unsettles, as does a climactic piece of street art staged by William and an actress: In the same place and at the same time Genovese was attacked, she screams in the night, outside mostly unlit buildings. Solomon shows us William taping up an announcement of this performance hours before in the foyer, which might defeat the point of it as an experiment. But still, even if everyone is forewarned, you will ache for the lights to come on.
Directed by James D. Solomon