Starring: Lionel Atwill, Greta Nissen, Helen Mack, Weldon Heyburn, Bramwell Fletcher, Mary Forbes, C. Montague Shaw, Wyndham Standing, Alan Mowbray, Herbert Mundin, Billy Bevan and Lumsden Hare
Directed by: Marcel Varnel and R.L. Hough
Released by: Fox Film
Runtime: 73 minutes
Release date: February 7th, 1932


The Silent Witness was a Fox Film release. At the time of this writing, it’s available to view over on YouTube.

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • “Just think of what time it was this morning when you let me go to bed!”
  • The young scion of a wealthy family is paying for the apartment of a woman who he regularly visits for reasons.
  • This woman is also married. The man she’s married to is also married. There’s a couple of other guys who get in on the ‘canoodling’ as well.
  • A happy ending where you only almost choked a woman to death; she was only badly beaten an unconscious, making her easily susceptible to an actual murder a few minutes later. Handshakes and kisses all around!

The Silent Witness: The Clown Car Murder

“You wanted one thing, and you were willing to pay for it!”

Returning to this site after a long absence was rough. Not because I don’t think I’ll find good movies to watch– The Greeks Had a Word for Them is up soon in my queue, and who doesn’t love Joan Blondell– but because there’s just so much dogshit. I watched this movie a week ago and started puttering on my review when my daughter got sick. I started agonizing over the deadline– but is there anyone out there begging for an in-depth review of a film that hasn’t even been logged 20 times on Letterboxd?

I’m trying to keep things in perspective, which isn’t made easy by just how lousy The Silent Witness is. There’s a good 40-minute chunk of this 70-minute movie where I had no idea what was supposed to be going on. Character’s motivations are played close to chest and the revelation that there was another guy who just happened to be lurking about the murder scene to clear everything up would be considered ‘cheating’ in any half decent mystery plot. This movie is a list of ideas that never come together.

We open with Anthony Howard (Bramwell), an impulsive rich lad who has an apartment where keeps Nora (Nissen) stashed. She’s the type who makes a day out of languishing in lingerie; he has one thing on his mind every time he enters the room and it isn’t the weather.

Well, one evening things start off badly when he arrives and she dares to refuse his overtures. When he hears a sound from the bedroom, he finds her smirking husband Horace (Bevin) lurking about, searching for spare change to supercharge his lifestyle. Discovering that she was married all along destroys him, and, once Horace leaves, Anthony chokes Nora to death.

He flees, but c’mon. This should be the easiest murder case of all time. He pays for the apartment. He was seen their in an emotionally compromised situation with the woman shortly beforehand. He left his fingerprints everywhere, including around her neck. It doesn’t help that almost immediately he admits to his parents and girlfriend that he committed the murder, including how and when he did it.

But, just to help this movie hobble past the ten minute mark, his father Sir Austin Howard (Lionel Atwill, in a truly ludicrous mustache) swoops in and takes the blame when Scotland Yard arrives. We later learn that he, too, was at Nora’s flat on the day in question. A trial is soon underway and it looks like Sir Austin will take the fall for his son’s crime, though the film is so murky it’s hard to tell if he’s doing it on purpose or is just so flummoxed by the barrister (Alan Mowbray in an even-for-the-Brits ludicrous wig) that he can’t keep his story straight.

Then a surprise witness steps forward and reveals… the truth.

Effectively shot and acted, The Silent Witness starts strong but spirals quickly. It feels stagey and half-assed, often tensionless as the film meanders to find another excuse to pass on the behavior of Anthony. He’s just a rich young scion who murdered a woman he kept– have you no sympathy for the little scamp? Aren’t you the person who watches Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and roots for Hyde the whole time?

It’s all, frankly, very weird even for the time. Where is the suspense in the court case? It comprises over half the movie, but we feature Herbert Mundin coming in as a confused taxi driver for a seven minute ‘comedy bit’ that just sees him befuddled and relaying stuff we already know.

Greta Nissen, one of the many imports brought in to try and capture some of the Garbo magic, struggles with what can generously be called an impossible role. Her Nora’s existence is simply about using her body as a vehicle to exploit others. There’s little psychology to it, little reason. Her penchant for creepy dolls is about the only thing notable about the character and her acting feels like you can see the struggle Nissen is having with the material on screen.

The rest of the cast is more polished, but, again, the story is just ludicrous. By the time Nora metaphorically rises from the dead to help keep the upper class’s hands clean, there’s nothing left to do than chuckle. This is the cinematic equivalent of getting your balls kicked for daring to give a damn. I genuinely resent this movie wasting precious moments of my solitary existence.

Trivia, Miscellany & Links

  • Based on a stage play from that started in London and moved to Broadway. Atwill is recreating his role here. While he had appeared in several films in the early 1920s, this would start a new career in Hollywood for Atwill, who would go on to appear in films like Son of Frankenstein and To Be or Not to Be.
  • Variety doesn’t think this one will sell too well with its cast of unknowns, but does think the twisty plot.
  • Motion Picture Herald makes a note of just how few British accents appear in this one despite being set in London.

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Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.