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The Witness (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

The Witness

The Witness


Featuring William Genovese, Aaron Adler, Charles Skoller, Bill Hirsch, Michael Farrar, Vincent Genovese, Frank Genovese, Aram Boyajian, Lynne Tillotson, Tod Tillotson, Hattie Grund, Dale Genovese, A.M. Rosenthal, Joseph De May, Jim Rasenberger, Mike Wallace, Joseph Lelyveld, Richard Wald, Gabe Pressman, Michael Daly, Janet Genovese, Josh Genovese, Maegan Genovese, Jordan Genovese, Jaime Genovese, Justin Genovese, Matthew Genovese, Ilse Hirsch Metchek, Walter Brosnan, Victor Horan, Angelo Lanzone, Mary Ann Zielonko, Kensworth Cleare, Albert Seedman, Robert Sparrow, Neil Welch, Mark Collins, Janet Koupash, Reverend Steven Moseley, Shannon Beeby, Sophia Farrar, Harold Takooshian, Kevin Cook, Curtis Sliwa and archival footage of Kitty Genovese, President Bill Clinton, Hugh Downs, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, Albert A. Seedman and Winston Moseley.

Narration written by William Genovese, Russell Greene, Gabriel Rhodes and James Solomon.

Directed by James Solomon.

Distributed by FilmRise.  90 minutes.  Not Rated.

The story of the shocking murder of Kitty Genovese, over fifty years ago, is still looked at as a black eye to the reputation of New York.  Not the murder itself, which while tragic was sadly a rather common occurrence: a woman walking to her apartment from a nearby parking lot in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens was attacked, stabbed and raped by a man lurking in the shadows.

That was not the circumstance that has made this story resonate until this day.  What was even more horrific about this case was that it occurred right outside of a Queens apartment building.  Many of the tenants heard Genovese’s screams.  However, it seemed that none of them came to the woman’s aid.  None of them called the police.  One person yelled out his window to scare the assailant off, but then the badly wounded woman was left to her own devices, stumbling off to the back of the building, with the killer coming back almost a half-hour later to finish the job.

The official New York Times story soon after the killings cemented the world’s disgust with the apathy of the neighbors.  In an March 27, 1964 article (two weeks after the murder), Times reporter Martin Gansberg used this stark and judgmental opening: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.  Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off.  Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again.  Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

I personally was way too young to know about the Genovese story as it happened.  I first became aware of it as a kid in the mid-70s, when I saw a fictionalized TV movie version of the Genovese story called Death Scream.  I undoubtedly watched it at the time simply because it had a mind-boggling 70s cast including Lucie Arnaz, Edward Asner, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Kate Jackson, Cloris Leachman, Tina Louise, Nancy Walker and a very young Raul Julia.  I never saw that TV movie again, but the story has haunted me ever since.

One person who was very aware of the story was Genovese’s young brother Bill.  He was only 16 when his sister was murdered.  At that point, he hadn’t lived with her in about a decade – the parents moved the family to New Canaan, CT, to get away from the rising crime statistics in the city, but Kitty was a high school graduate and decided she wanted to stay.  He was too young to know much of what happened to his sister – in fact he and his brothers and sister insist the family was kept pretty much in the dark about the investigation – and yet that tragedy had completely altered his life.

All these years later, he is left with more questions than answers.  The original Times opening was a horrifying description, though over the years the accuracy of that account has been called into serious question.  First of all, many people wondered, where was the figure of 38 eyewitnesses arrived at?  It appears to be from the police records of witness testimony, but according to that most of the people heard screams, but very few actually watched the attack take place.  Also, she was attacked twice, not three times, and the second attack was in a secluded area of the building which most people could not see.

Bill Genovese has been seeing and hearing stories about his sister’s death for 50 years, and each had its own inconsistencies.  He finally decided to investigate the case on his own.  The Witness follows him as he tries to track down and talk to witnesses (many have died in the years since the killings), policemen, journalists, anyone who may have a perspective on Kitty’s death and what happened.  He also wanted to try, as much as possible, to separate what really happened from the mythology that has built up of the event.  For decades the story has become emblematic of the bystander apathy of urban life and the fact that, in the long run, we’re all in it alone.

Kitty was not the only tragedy in his life.  Bill is a double-amputee right below the waist.  No one mentions it, including the film, until about a half hour in to the movie you are given a very matter-of-fact explanation, but one that says all that is needed: he lost his legs in Vietnam.  He also suggests that stories of the apathy of the neighbors who didn’t help his sister were a huge part of the reason he joined the armed forces.  (Later in the film, he gives a more detailed description of what happened.)

Will’s family tries to be supportive, but they are not sure that his search is a wise one.  “I often wondered how much detail Billy would get into,” one of his brothers admits.  “So and so did this.  So and so opened the window.  So and so shouted…”  He shrugged, distraught.  “For what?  She’s dead.  She’s murdered.  Why do I want to hear that?”

And that is a valid point.  None of the holes that he can poke into the official story will bring his sister back.  Fifty years later, he has not been able to bury her.  In fact, he acknowledges that it has become an obsession in his life, probably an unhealthy one at that.

However, his investigation does bring to light many things which are not part of the official record – including the fact that at least one of the surviving witnesses said that she called the police while the crime was happening and was told by the officer on duty that they had already received calls about it.  He also learned that the woman next door, who was the landlord and friendly with Kitty, claims to have ran down to her when she found out that Kitty was bleeding in a stairway – at her own personal danger – and held the woman and talked to her as she died.

Are these true stories, or 50 years of guilt wrapped into a more palatable explanation?  We’ll never really know, but we’d like to think these things happened.

A late attempt to contact Kitty’s murderer, Winston Moseley, serving a life prison term for Kitty’s murder, mostly comes to naught, but does give more insight into the specifics of the case.

However, about halfway into the film, his investigation turns more palatable though – instead of investigating her death he looks into the specifics her life, giving himself and the audience a much better understanding of Kitty as a woman.  For example, he only found out within the last few years that his sister was a partially closeted gay woman.  She had friends, interests, even was arrested once on a minor charge of placing an illegal bet for one of her customers.  In fact, Bill only realized many years later that the most common photo of Kitty in news stories – the one which also appears on the movie poster – was actually her mug shot.

With old home movies and talking with old friends and co-workers of a sister he realized he did not know all that well, he is able to flip the narrative on Kitty.  Her legacy is no longer just about the tragedy of her last half hour, it is about the joyous life force that was packed into her way too short existence.

In finding out more about his sister’s life, hopefully Bill Genovese will finally be able to come to terms with her death.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: June 3, 2016.

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