The Witness, opening Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center, tells a story we all think we know: in March 1964, a 28-year-old bar manager named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death late one night as she returned home to her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, her screams unheeded by her neighbors in another apartment building across the street. “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,” wrote Martin Gansberg in the New York Times two weeks after the crime.
As the Times acknowledged in a 2004 story by Jim Rasenberger, and reiterated earlier this year when Genovese’s killer died in prison, the Times story was highly exaggerated. In The Witness, Bill Genovese, the victim’s younger brother, comes to Kew Gardens in search of the truth, and the story he pieces together from his interviews with surviving witnesses is more complicated and in some instances more humane than the one that’s hardened into popular legend.
Here’s what really happened, as far as we know. Winston Moseley, a psychotic husband and father who’d already murdered one other woman, tailed Kitty Genovese as she drove home and stabbed her several times in front of her apartment building. An elevator man in the building across the street saw the attack and hid. Genovese’s screams fetched at least two people to their windows, one of whom yelled at the attacker and called police. After he fled, Genovese staggered around the corner of the building to the back, where her apartment entrance was, and collapsed in the foyer. About a half hour later, Moseley returned to rape and murder her; this second attack was seen from the top of the stairwell by another neighbor, who did nothing, but a third neighbor, who was Kitty’s friend, called the police and came to her aid as she was dying.
Filmmaker James D. Solomon relies on two men to probe the facts—Charles Skoller, a retired assistant DA who helped prosecute the killer, and Joseph De May Jr., an attorney and Kew Gardens resident who began investigating the incident when he created a neighborhood website. Their narratives of what occurred back in 1964 overlap to some extent—there were only a half dozen known eyewitnesses—but they diverge on the question of how many neighbors knew what was happening. Skoller, who tours the crime scene with Bill Genovese, is convinced that everyone in the building across the street would have heard Kitty screaming bloody murder. De May, who has a vested interest in the neighborhood’s reputation, isn’t so sure: many witnesses said they heard something but weren’t sure what.
The Witness has the awful pull of a true-crime mystery as Solomon and Bill Genovese (who’s credited as an executive producer) try to track down the 38 witnesses. They begin with a trial transcript, then obtain a police report with nearly all the names redacted. Finally they get their hands on summaries of the original police witness reports, compiled by ABC News for a 1979 segment of 20/20. He tracks down Lynne Tillotson, who remembers only hearing a scream in the night, seeing nothing out her window, and going back to bed. He tracks down Hattie Grund, who says she called the police when she heard screaming, though police records show no evidence of this. You’re never sure whether to believe these people, because who would own up on camera to such callousness?
As Bill Genovese makes clear in the movie, he’s been haunted all his life by his sister’s murder, and by the original Times story, which took on a life of its own in the popular imagination, inspiring books, impassioned news commentary, and academic studies in psychology and sociology. He fought in Vietnam, he says, because he didn’t want to be a bystander like the people who let Kitty Genovese die. When a land mine blew his legs off in July 1967, he lay on the ground wondering, “What was it like for her when she realized nobody was going to save her?” Bill conducts his entire investigation from a wheelchair, rolling it right up to one of the apartment windows that still look out onto the initial crime scene.
Solomon and Genovese also tracked down the legendary Times editor A.M. Rosenthal and interviewed him prior to his death in 2006 to challenge him on the story. Rosenthal, who edited Martin Gansberg 40 years earlier and wrote a book about the Genovese murder called Thirty-eight Witnesses, is so captivated by the social impact of the story that he couldn’t care less whether it was accurate. You have to wonder at the arrogance of a man who could sit in front of the victim’s brother, whose life was irrevocably changed by those words, and tell him that the details don’t matter.