“THE WITNESS”— The Case for Kitty Genovese

“The Witness”

The Case of Kitty Genovese

Amos Lassen

James Solomon’s moving documentary chronicles Bill Genovese’s quest for the truth behind his sister Kitty’s notorious murder.

Kitty Genovese’s case became synonymous with apathy after news that she was stabbed to death on a New York City street while 38 witnesses did nothing. Now some forty years later, her brother decides to find the truth. He uncovers a lie that changed his life, condemned a city and defined an era. The case of Kitty Genovese brought about a national outcry. When 28-year-old bar worker, Kitty Genovese was murdered, news reports—especially a front-page story in the New York Times claimed that dozens of her neighbors watched the crime unfold over a half-hour but did nothing to help her and the incident became a symbol of modern urban resident’s fear of “getting involved.”

However, in the last ten years another investigative narrative has challenged and replaced the original. This one charges that Times editor Abe Rosenthal oversaw that the manufacture of a modern horror story in which much of the reporting was skewed to fit the message or was completely wrong. Since the revisionist take has gotten lots of attention saying much about the media’s power to create myths and distort the public’s perception of events.

More than a decade ago, the filmmaker was involved in trying to put together an HBO dramatic film about the Genovese case with playwright Alfred Uhry and documentarian Joe Berlinger but it never got off the ground so Solomon decided to make a documentary on the subject in partnership with Bill Genovese, one of Kitty’s three surviving brothers. This film has been in the making for eleven years.

Bill Genovese is a retiree who lost both legs in the Vietnam War and he feels that this the film is an attempt to discover the truth behind the media reports of his sister’s murder and achieve a personal emotional resolution to the event that traumatized his family members so much that they did not dare speak about it. Solomon’s skills and Genovese’s sincerity and intelligence make this quite a thoughtful and satisfying cinematic experience.

Despite his disability, Bill gets around well and Solomon’s cameras follow him as he revisits the scene of the crime and talks with those who were there at the time. As the original news stories correctly reported, Kitty was coming home late when a man stabbed her from behind. She screamed loudly and made her way into her building’s hallway where the murderer returned a half-hour later and killed her. However, the claim of “38 witnesses” who ignored her plight seems to have something made up; many heard her screams but, contrary to the Times, most could not see the crime. Unquestionably, some who could’ve acted to help her did not. One woman says that she called the police and told others they had done so. had done so (a claim that can’t be substantiated). Contrary to the reports that his sister died alone, Bill speaks with a neighbor and friend of Kitty’s who tells of holding her when she took her last breath.

This film shows the tragedy’s nuances and human complexities and  examines the murder’s unusual peripheral circumstances, in which 38 witnesses did nothing to try and help Genovese as she cried out to be helped. As Bill revisited what happened then, he discovered previously unknown details about his sister’s life. He learned that she was a lesbian and was involved with local, small-time gambling rings. Solomon follows Bill’s pursuits regarding personal reconciliation, the breakdown of community, and journalistic malpractice and we learn that Times editor Abe Rosenthal changed certain details in order to sell a story of a neighborhood of people are totally removed from one another.

The film presents Genovese’s identity as an afterthought, turning her living days and nights into incidental details that the filmmakers quickly hustle through in order to return to the circumstances surrounding her murder.

Bill is genuinely haunted by his sister’s murder and, in fact, he enlisted in the military shortly after her murder. The fact that he lost both of his legs has become a visible, material reminder of loss. Solomon captures these feelings outside of direct confrontations, like at a family dinner that results in members asking Bill when he’ll be satisfied and quit researching her murder. By film’s end, Bill’s quest is still somewhat cloudy and we do not understand what his compulsion for more information actually means. This is a cathartic film for Bill Genovese and he is the heart and soul of what we see.

The documentary provides substantial evidence that several of the 38 witnesses, whose names were uncovered in an earlier investigation by the TV program 20/20, did indeed call the police and/or shout at the assailant to stop. Among the media figures that covered the case were Gabe Pressman and the late Mike Wallace and both are seen in interviews here. Wallace admits that the story was “a media creation” to a certain degree, and both cite the power of the press in its becoming accepted as truth.

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