Movie Review: The Witness (2015) Dir. James Solomon

Image above: Kitty Genovese, iconic 1960's murder victim and the symbol of urban apathy, from James Solomon's The Witness. Photo from June Murley courtesy of Five More Minutes Productions

This intensely personal documentary, directed by James Solomon and written by the brother of 28 year old Kitty Genovese, who was brutally stabbed to death in 1964 outside of her Kew Gardens apartment in the early morning hours became a symbol of a dangerous New York City of random violence and public apathy. The media circus which enveloped the story focused on the grisly facts - that there were two separate attacks over an extended amount of time and that the victim was screaming desperately for help throughout and none of the 38 witnesses who either heard or saw the attack came to her rescue or even called 911 as she lay bleeding to death.


Image above: Kitty Genovese, at her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, in James Solomon's The Witness, about her iconic New York City murder. Photo from the Genovese family courtesy of Five More Minutes Productions.

Upon hearing this story, Abe Rosenthal, then editor of the NY Times assigned an in-depth article investigating all of the details of the crime. It caused outrage among the readers and a barrage of editorial pieces on the circumstances and appalling behavior of those who could have helped. There were segments on television on 20/20 and it became the sort of media frenzy with which we have become all too familiar today. And it went on and on. Everyone seemed to want to weigh in with righteous indignation, theories and condemnation. Rosenthal even wrote a book on the case, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case.


The iconic death and little known life of Kitty Genovese, reportedly killed in front of 38 witnesses, is unraveled in James Solomon's The Witness. Photo from the Genovese family courtesy of Five More Minutes Productions.

What this film does, however, is something distinct from re-hashing the awful story. It gives it a context which includes Kitty’s family, most importantly, her younger brother William, who loved and adored his older sister. He was 16 years old when she was murdered and never seems to have gotten over it. And, as much as the world seemed to focus on the case, the family did the opposite. They closed ranks, did not talk to the press, and generally shut down. They barely talked about Kitty or her death. That was a somewhat typical way of dealing with deep emotional pain 50 years ago. However, William, a Vietnam veteran, who lost both of his legs - is driven to understand how it could have happened.

What he discovers is the Kitty that he did not know. He learns about her past from old school friends and her life in NYC leading up to the time of her death. He talks to an ex-husband and her girlfriend of several years who was her lover at the time. And he talks to as many of the witnesses who are still alive and whom he could locate. He is unable to talk to Walter Mosely, her murderer, but manages to meet with his son. In a quest for answers, he discovers many untruths, overt exaggerations and allegations treated as facts. There were those who called the police and one woman who got to Kitty as she was dying. It was not the black and white story which was so sensationalized by the media. This should come as no surprise.


Image above: James Solomon, director and producer of The Witness, an unraveling of the iconic death and little known life of Kitty Genovese. Photo by Richard Solomon courtesy of Five More Minutes Productions

William Genovese is almost unbearably empathetic and his determination to dig into the story is so poignantly genuine. He is not some avenging maniac hell-bent on revenge. Nor is he, even remotely, seeking sympathy. He is a sensitive, eloquent, intelligent on-screen presence whom you cannot help but admire. The film is so well-structured and holds your attention like a crime procedural. It is beautifully directed without creating artificial drama. It is a very haunting story. The letter to William from Moseley makes one thing clear. In these times when everyone seems to know everything - some things will never be fully knowable.

- Belle McIntyre

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