DVD Review– The Witness
The story of Kitty Genovese is supposedly well known. A young woman was brutally murdered in the middle of the night in New York. Well over thirty people witnessed the attack, but nobody did anything. The crime became a symbol of the city’s moral decay, the people who refused to get involved received well-deserved condemnation, and the “bystander” or “Genovese effect” entered the psychology textbooks.
But what if that version of events was wrong? Indeed, more than wrong—a deliberate exaggeration, even a vicious lie—that slandered innocent people in the name of sensationalism? James D. Solomon’s documentary The Witness looks at the crime through the eyes of William Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother. Decades after the murder, William is still mourning his sister and is determined to find out the full story of what happened. The Witness follows William as he interviews people connected to the case and as he discovers that the standard version of events may be a disturbing fabrication.
William knew that Kitty had been stabbed, and that a man named Winston Moseley had been tried and convicted for her murder, but other than the fact that her death became the symbol of urban indifference, William still desired answers. As the film progresses, aside from Kitty’s killer, the villain of the story becomes The New York Times, as the testimony of surviving witnesses proves that the “nobody did anything” story was at best exaggerated and at worst a heartless slander, as one of Kitty’s friends ran down to help her, and the police were called. Some people did help her, and though the point isn’t discussed at length in the film, it should be noted that the people nearby were mostly earwitnesses rather than eyewitnesses as is commonly believed, and that there are many reasons why someone might not have heard anything in the middle of the night, such as being in a deep sleep or the location of one’s apartment. William’s investigation provides a very different picture of the case. As we are introduced to the friends who loved her, Kitty becomes more than just a victim or a symbol: she becomes a three-dimensional person who was taken away too soon.
Other powerful moments come from the figures who do not appear on-screen, including Kitty’s ex-husband, who quite understandably has refused to talk about his relationship with Kitty and declined to be interviewed, and Kitty’s girlfriend, whose desire for privacy is equally reasonable, although she did provide an audio interview that is presented along with stark but strangely poignant animation.
The most remarkable scene in the film is where William interviews the son of the man who killed his sister. As the conversation unfolds, we see Moseley’s son eyeing William with wariness, as if he expects William to whip out a revolver at any moment and shoot him. Moseley’s son then asks if William and Kitty are members of the Genovese crime family seeking vengeance. The quiet, polite, yet emotionally charged conversation takes a fascinating turn as Moseley’s son explains why he believes that his father was innocent. No dramatist could write dialogue so devoid of verbal fireworks and yet so overstuffed with power, and only actors of genius could replicate how every word and facial expression in the scene is filled with incredible emotion, as what is not said carries as much weight as what is.
The Witness is an excellent exploration of one of the nation’s most famous murders and a fascinating revisionist history of a story that may have maliciously harmed the reputations of several innocent and altruistic people.
The Witness– Special Director’s Edition
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