Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese's murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty's younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.
Eleven years in the making, The Witness loses some dramatic steam, because by the time Bill Genovese concluded his investigation into what really happened on the night Kitty died, the Times had owned up to serious flaws in its earlier reporting. The number of witnesses who saw Moseley stab Genovese — twice — and did nothing was exaggerated. Genovese tracked down one neighbor who did call the police and a heroic friend who rushed to Kitty's aid and cradled her in her arms as she died. Most, though, only heard rather than saw the wounded woman shriek as she stumbled from the parking lot to the back of a building — which, the filmmakers emphasize via animated sketches and a hair-raising re-enactment — complicates rather than negates bystander responsibility.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister's death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness' son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and "therefore" would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley's anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.
Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film's subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty's death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he "didn't lose [his] legs for nothing." There's little reason to doubt their brother's sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for "closure" — a glib buzzword that's overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.
Bill was 16 years old when Kitty Genovese died. That's old enough to remember more about a sister whose favorite he was than the fact that she overturned a pot of spaghetti on his head when he wouldn't finish his dinner. We're shown the familiar mug shot of an elfin Kitty on her arrest on a minor gambling charge, and some charming amateur footage of this pretty, vivacious woman dancing with schoolmates. Tantalizingly, her female lover and roommate painfully discusses (off screen at her own request) Kitty's conflicts as a gay woman cut off by a violent stranger just as she was entering a time when she might have proudly emerged from the closet. Beyond this brief glimpse of Kitty Genovese the person rather than the victim, she remains trapped in death, and in decades of media mythmaking.