You needn’t be a New Yorker or even of a certain age to know the name Kitty Genovese. The murder of the twenty-eight-year-old woman in March 1964 came to serve as a symbol of the kind of collective apathy thought to have afflicted, if not defined, an era of soaring crime and imminent social breakdown. Thirty-eight people were said to have watched from their windows as she was stalked, stabbed, raped, and left for dead at three a.m. in the vestibule of a Queens apartment building, none having lifted a finger (or phone) even as her attacker returned to finish the deed. Books followed, courses of study were established, and an academic industry was built on the Genovese murder and “the bystander effect”—an interpretation dutifully tended down through the decades by a media reluctant to subject a story this “good” to the greater scrutiny it deserved. In fact, not nearly as many people witnessed the attack; few saw it in its entirety; and two called the police.
That might have been the scoop of James Solomon’s documentary The Witness, which follows Kitty’s youngest brother Bill as he pursues the nagging questions about just what happened to his sister and how in the fifty intervening years her murder became shorthand for a sociological phenomenon. But maybe more important than cataloguing the journalistic flaws—which had already been acknowledged in a 2004 New York Times story and by others reviewing the original reporting—the film helps reanimate a young woman known mainly for the notoriety of her death and by the photo accompanying almost every account of it, reminding us that this was a real person getting her life underway. The dramatic appeal of The Witness comes from the fact that Bill seems to discover certain facts about the life of Kitty Genovese just as the audience does.
As the driven sibling willing to admit the obsessive aspect of his quest, Bill Genovese, now sixty-eight, makes for a compelling guide. A handsome, articulate Marine who lost both his legs in Vietnam, he is polite but dogged in tracking down surviving witnesses and learning what they did or didn’t see. (That he is often shown wheeling himself to meet interviewees forcefully underscores the notion of his dedication to the mission.) He learns just how an exaggerated and erroneous version of the story that originated with The New York Times took root and became a trope repeated in everything from reports on 60 Minutes to speeches by Bill Clinton to episodes of Law & Order and Girls. He also meets, and shows admirable compassion for, the son of Winston Moseley—the man who killed Kitty—now a middle-aged minister whose own skewed understanding of the crime reveals how damagingly it affected him.
Yet it’s the section of the film that (un)covers Kitty’s life that works best.
With Bill, we learn from an interview with a girlhood friend what a cut-up Kitty was in high school, a characterization supported by amateur movie clips in which she dances and laughs. We learn that she was married, briefly, and that her ex-husband will not talk about it. We learn how she eventually met her lover (who is interviewed off-screen by request), the woman with whom she was sharing an apartment at the time of her murder—a painful and touching account that serves as a reminder of the difficulty of coming out in 1964, not to mention doing so as the oldest daughter of an Italian Catholic family. There are intimations that her parents might have suspected Kitty’s relationship for what it was but that denial might have confusedly mixed with guilt to compound their grief after her death.
The film stumbles in places. Eleven years in the making, evidence of its lengthy gestation is awkwardly apparent in interviews by a younger looking Bill with now deceased figures like A. M. Rosenthal (who was instrumental in pushing the original version of the story) and Mike Wallace. And a climactic, quasi-reenactment of the murder, featuring a shrieking actress and filmed on-site at the time it occurred, feels like a forced, unnecessary, and far too literal attempt at closure. Its high cinematic quality also makes it an odd fit, especially given the effectiveness of the smaller, intimately shot encounters preceding it. One such is a conversation with two now-elderly coworkers from the bar Kitty was managing at the time of her death. Was she ever the type to miss a shift or cause trouble, Bill asks. No, they scoff; she may have gotten pinched when asked to run numbers for the local bookie that one time (an arrest that resulted in the famous mugshot), but that wasn’t her fault. There’s a pause, then one of them, sounding like a loving older relative using a term of endearment from long ago, proclaims: Kitty was a pussycat.