For 50 years now, the murder of Kitty Genovese has been held up as evidence that Americans -- and New Yorkers especially -- are monsters of apathy and self-involvement. Long before dawn on the morning of March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley murdered Genovese outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. As the Times told the story soon after, precisely 38 people witnessed the crime but nobody intervened or even reported it to the police.
News of this set off media concern-trollism: What does such indifference say about us as a people? As James D. Solomon's compelling and sometimes frustrating doc The Witness makes clear, it turns out that what the case actually tells us is that we're gullible as hell.
Solomon follows the efforts of Genovese's younger brother, William, to track down surviving witnesses. He quickly discovers that the original reporting greatly exaggerated the reality. Some of those "witnesses" report hearing a scream, looking out the window and seeing nothing. Another says she actually did call the police -- and was told that it had already been reported. None of that is verifiable, of course, especially now that the witnesses have endured a half-century of being shamed in the name of anecdote-driven sociological editorializing. And William Genovese's onscreen quest sometimes plays more like performance than reporting — The Witness is structured along the lines of a Hollywood mystery, with one driven man digging into the past for truths some might prefer to remain un-dug. His day-to-day wanderings solve the problem many documentary filmmakers face: What footage can the interviews be cut around? Still, The Witness is persuasive on the main point, that the murder couldn't have been "witnessed" the way we've been told.