Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Re-enacting crime’s witnesses in the city

Two other films, Death Scream and 38 Témoins, suggest more specifically that to comprehend urban apathy, spectators must be able to see inside the lives of urban dwellers through the filmic portrayal of high-rise apartment units. Both films fully re-enact the Kitty Genovese murder: one from the context of mid-1970s New York, the other from contemporary Le Havre, France, where the seemingly universal psychological truths of bystanding transcend the place-specificity of particular cities and the historical crimes for which they become known.

More than other films on or about the Genovese case, the 1975 made-for-TV social problem film Death Scream depicts the often fragile sense of community among apartment building residents, the limited communication that structures their social relationships with each other, and for some, the legitimate reasons for why they may fear speaking to the police about what they saw or heard of the crime against female character Jenny Storm. Five years before the film Groping was produced, Death Scream portrayed apartment dwellers' refusals to engage with the violence being committed against their neighbour and in front of their apartments by also depicting them dropping their window shades. In shots filmed from the street, viewers of Death Scream see bystanders' collective non-response in the shadowy profiles of residents cast against their opaque window coverings.

Death Scream retells the Genovese murder from the perspective of the diverse apartment-living witnesses to the crime, set in the context of 1970s New York. The film's all-star cast includes Raul Julia as Latino Detective Nick Rodriguez, Diahann Carroll as a depressive and suicidal African-American woman, Tina Louise as the murder victim's one-time lesbian lover, Ed Asner as a married man who encourages his wife, played by Cloris Leachman, not to talk to the police because of their fears of involvement, and a 12-year-old Helen Hunt who plays Det. Rodriquez’s daughter Teila. German-born actor Eric Braeden, well known for his role as corporate patriarch Victor Newman in the long-running US daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, plays an undocumented Polish immigrant whose fears of having his and his wife's immigration status discovered, waits until days after the murder to report to the police what they saw and heard of the murder from their street-facing first-floor apartment.

Death Scream’s re-enactment of the Genovese murder opens the 1975 telefeature (warning: the clip may be triggering for some viewers). Shot at night, with several references to the dominant news account of the Genovese murder, viewers see the victim, Jenny Storm, park her car near her apartment building as the camera shifts view to a man who follows her movements from the sidewalk. After being frightened by a cat’s meow, Storm turns and comes face-to-face with a male attacker who grabs her, pulls her out of the light and starts to stab here as she yells out 'Help me! Help me!' With its references to horror film camera work, where the camera shoots what the perpetrator sees, viewers follow the female character as if they too are the killer hunting his victim. A male resident of the apartment building hears her screams and gets up from his bed, opens the French doors to his balcony and yells out 'You there, get away from that girl! Get away from her!' in reference to real-life witness to the Genovese murder Robert Mozer who verbally intervened during Moseley's first attack. In his own testimony at his murder trial, Moseley reported, 'I didn’t think the person that called [out] would come down to help her regardless of the fact that she screamed, so I came back…', implicating the witnesses to the murder in his own justification for his assault. Death Scream re-stages Mozer’s speech act in order to judge its inadequacy in stopping Moseley’s attack on Genovese. In Death Scream, the character playing his wife (whose role actually references the wife of another witness who did not yell down to the street) urges the witness to get back inside, warning him that the assailant might have a gun. ‘Do you want him to come up here at shoot us?' she asks. 'It’s all right, I scared him away', her husband Harry states matter-of-factly. Genovese’s neighbours, the Koshkins, spoke to the press and testified in court offering a similar explanation for why they did not call the police: because Mrs Koshkin thought it would put them at risk from the killer. Throughout the scene in Death Scream, Storm implores her neighbours to help as her killer continues to stalk her, but no one comes to her aid.

Across the rest of the scene, we watch the crime being committed from the multiple perspectives of different apartment residents. Mrs Kosinsky looks out the window to see Jenny Storm crouched in agony on the sidewalk; her face pained with concern, Mrs Kosinsky follows Storm’s movements from the apartment’s other windows. Ed Asner’s character peeks out through the lace curtains that cover the bedroom window above the bed he shares with his wife, who sleeps through the initial screams only to be awoken later by the victim’s screams from the apartment stairwell. Her husband tells her to go back to sleep, explaining that she is just having a nightmare. Another couple stands together at their apartment window in their nightclothes, watching with concern as the victim struggles to climb the front exterior stairs of the building. They argue later about what they would tell the police if they called them, calling into question the veracity of what they have witnessed with their own eyes and ears. Rather than risk embarrassment from not being able to answer police questions, the husband, played by Art Carney, tells his wife, played by Nancy Walker, to put down the phone. She ignores him and calls the police, who are not receptive to her call, suggesting that police indifference may also be to blame. At this point, their neighbour is already dead.

The Kosinksys see Storm’s assailant return to the scene, and they argue about whether to help. Another neighbour, Betty, played by Diahann Carroll, swallows a handful of pills as Jenny collapses in the building’s lobby. Jenny calls out repeatedly for Betty as the latter falls into a pill-induced stupor, unable to offer her neighbour aid as she watches Jenny being attacked again by her assailant on the interior stairwell of the apartment building. Death Scream is the only film of the oeuvre that depicts the failures of witnesses to intervene once the victim moves inside the building, where her assailant follows her and continues his attack. Winston Moseley, Genovese’s killer, committed his second attack against her within the stairwell of the neighbouring apartment building, which one witness, Karl Ross, witnessed from the top of the stairs. He did not call police until Moseley left the scene.

Death Scream is the only film analysed here that addresses Genovese’s lesbianism, in a six-minute long scene of a police interview with character Hilda Murray played by Tina Louise. In the scene, police hassle Hilda as they interview her about her whereabouts the night of Jenny Storm’s murder. Clearly wary of the police, Hilda begrudgingly outs herself as a lesbian, detailing her night of activities at a club and then later at a female lover’s flat. She talks back to the police from a position of having experienced vice police raids of the lesbian clubs she frequents. Up until the police show her morgue photos of Jenny’s body, and reveal that they treat Hilda as a suspect, she is led to assume that her sexuality is under investigation. The police do not prepare Hilda for the shock she receives viewing the photos of her former lover. She realizes she is being treated as a suspect in the murder and she screams out in horror, 'No woman would do that!' The scene references the first public outing of Kitty Genovese’s sexuality in the 1974 true crime book Chief co-authored by New York chief of detectives Allan Seedman. Besides the scene with her former girlfriend, which reveals her lesbianism, viewers learn little more information about Jenny Storm’s life, also referencing the lack of detail about Genovese’s life in news reports of her murder.

Like other films, Death Scream places social responsibility for the crime squarely in the hands of the crime's witnesses, deflecting it from the police, who are mostly depicted as hard-working, responsive and morally innocent upholders of the law, contrary to most popular opinion of New York police in the mid-1970s. In a series of clips from the film Death Scream, shown above, the undocumented couple from Poland refuses to help the police out of fear of being deported. After first refusing to talk to the police, Mr Kosinsky goes to them after he sees the assailant steal a chicken from a local street market, after which the man then threatens him and his wife with a knife. After going to the police to report the man as the woman’s killer, Kosinsky confesses, ‘I am not afraid, I have a problem’. Realizing Kosinksy is undocumented, Latino Detective Rodriguez reassures him that the police do not care about his immigration status. In a portrayal of police less common today in depictions of largely white-identified anti-immigrant police cultures, the police in Death Scream offer to assist the Kosinskys with their immigration problems in exchange for help with the murder case. The offer appears not as a ploy but as a genuine promise to help. Throughout the film, the police appear above reproach.

Death Scream depicts the witnesses struggling with their inaction from within the tight space of their apartment living room. In the process, the film reveals the range of reasons neighbours gave for not calling the police. One resident attempted suicide the night of the murder; the Kosinsky couple fears deportation as illegal immigrants; and a middle-aged couple lives by the credo of not getting involved in other people’s business. Intercut with scenes where each couple talks privately about their reasons and fears of involvement, the killer remains loose in the city, assaulting other women while the police continue to investigate. The entire case hangs on the witnesses to the first murder, who over the course of the film begin reluctantly to report what they saw and heard. In one scene, viewers watch a couple from the apartment building watching news of the murder that reports on neighbours’ lack of involvement in the case. News here functions as the moral witness in place of the apartment dwellers who failed to act on what they saw and heard of the murder outside their windows, much like the role news plays in The Detached Americans in 1964.

In 38 Témoins, the 2012 French film based on Didier Decoin's novel that retells the Genovese murder, a police officer forces a middle-aged male character, Mr Petrini, reluctantly to re-enact what he yelled down to the street after seeing a man attack a woman below his apartment window. ‘I can’t take this anymore’, he screams out, echoing an infamous scene in the 1976 film Network in which anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, instructs his viewers to stick their heads out their windows and exclaim ‘I am mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ The ‘this’ to which Beale refers is a litany of mid-1970s urban and economic problems: people out of work and frightened of losing their jobs, the declining value of the US dollar, shopkeepers arming themselves against potential robberies, ‘punks running wild in the streets’, ‘air unfit to breathe and food unfit to eat’, and a news system invested in the normality of urban homicide and homelessness. ‘It’s like everything’s going crazy now’, Beale intones, ‘so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller. We say, “please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say a thing. Just leave us alone!”’ Shaking in his anchor chair, wet from the rain and still wearing his overcoat on air, Beale urges his viewers to testify with him. Later in the scene, urban apartment dwellers open their windows and repeat after Beale. Before entering the studio, Beale tells a security guard that tonight, ‘I must make my witness’, and by extension, the city residents do as well as they verbally express their anger from their windows, just as the reluctant male witness is coerced to do by the police in 38 Témoins.

While Death Scream depicts 1970s New York as a city defined by economic instabilities, increasing crime and white crime fear to which the characters directly testify, in 38 Témoins the witnesses are for the most part unable to provide reasons for why they did not call the police. They instead make excuses, perhaps none more seemingly unfeeling than main character Pierre’s statement that he thought the woman who had been murdered had simply gone home after she screamed out while being assaulted. Across several scenes, the film visually dwells on Pierre’s apathetic, and depressive, ennui. Pierre saw and heard the woman being assaulted across the street from his second-storey corner apartment. Many of the film’s scenes are shot from within the apartment he shares with girlfriend Louise, who was away on business at the time of the murder. After confirming that Pierre was home at the time of the murder, Louise begins to suspect Pierre had witnessed more of the crime than he was willing to admit. From his window, he had a full view onto the crime scene. Women in the film, notably Louise and a female journalist, occupy the moral centre of action, taking responsibility for their own and others failures to act on behalf of a female neighbour being assaulted.

Like Death Scream, 38 Témoins dramatizes the process through which apartment-dwelling witnesses are compelled to admit what they heard and saw of a violent assault against a woman in their immediate vicinity by intimates, police officers and, in the case of 38 Témoins, a journalist who covers the case. In a series of scenes, a journalist, a police detective and a police lieutenant interrogate Pierre, and at times Louise, about what he heard and what he saw the night of the murder from his living room window. More than a revelation of what they heard or saw, in 38 Témoins the film’s main action is in getting the witnesses to admit what they had seen and heard of their neighbour's femicide. The film does this by staging a police re-enactment of the murder in which the witnesses must play themselves on the night of the murder. The re-enactment occurs late in the film, after a news story reveals how neighbours failed to report what they saw and heard to the police. The scene is reminiscent of the re-enactment in Death Scream except that in 38 Témoins the re-enactment is an intentional re-performance of the crime that is meant to hold witnesses accountable for their inaction.

Over seven minutes, the film depicts the police and neighbours re-enacting the murder scene. A police officer is assigned to each of the witnesses, who asks what they heard and how they heard it. The witnesses's answers direct the action of the re-enactment, telling the police officers how to stage the screams and the silent pauses between them. The re-enactment forces the witnesses to physically remember the crime, ‘putting what has been dis/membered back together again’ as Richard Schechner argues. Pierre describes to a detective how the screams should be longer and stronger, to reflect more accuratelyt what he heard that night. Louise listens to his description of the screams as his failures as a witness become blatantly clear to her, and to the films’ viewers, through the process of re-enactment.

Re-enactment here becomes its own act of witness. 'Getting a performance on film' such as the police re-enactment of the Genovese murder in 38 Témoins or the ways other films re-tell and re-play aspects of the infamous case, is 'a generative event'. In showing viewers how the crime’s witnesses heard and saw the crime from the interiors of their apartments, they now become witnesses to the crime in so far as the re-enactment forces them to testify to what they heard and saw. A crowd stands in the street listening to the re-enactment, performing a visibly collective act of witness after-the-fact and depicting an idealized mass witnessing subject that stands at heightened attention to the scene in front of them. In this way, 38 Témoins refigures the urban crowd, not as a mob or menace, but as an ideal of public witnessing in the city. No such collective stood witness on the night of the murder, for there was no crowd to act as witness. The witnesses instead appear in the film segregated into their separate apartment units and unable to speak to each other. They represent, not a collective, but a failure to form collective action.

In another scene, the police chief explains why from his perspective people did not intervene: some take too many painkillers to feel anything, others incorrectly assessed the situation, and some just do not care. Understanding will not help redress the situation; judgement will, according to the police chief, for it requires involvement that both films show witnesses failed to enact. A lone character who never speaks appears at several points in 38 Témoins to silently judge Pierre and the other witnesses to the crime who failed to intervene. Standing on his apartment balcony, he stares into Pierre and Louise’s apartment, transmitting the act of judgment into a way of seeing from the exterior of the city into the interiorized affective space of their private lives as so many of the films analysed here dramatize. In the repetition of scenes of this man staring in 38 Témoins, the neighbour’s silent judgment invokes the question, ‘why didn’t you help?’ In the third clip above, Pierre attempts to shut out his neighbour’s judgements by closing his curtains, but Pierre’s body language suggests his attempts have failed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes the stare as ‘an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story’. If ‘staring bespeaks involvement and being stared at demands a response’, it takes the police re-enactment and a moment of confession for Pierre to respond to the neighbours’ ‘stare-and-tell dynamic’.

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