Kitty Genovese was a popular girl at her Brooklyn high school, and was voted “class cut-up” in her senior yearbook. When she was 19, her family moved to the suburbs. Kitty stayed behind, a choice that not many single, young women would have made in the early 1960s—but according to her brother Bill Genovese, Kitty was ahead of her time. She was married, briefly, and afterward, managed a bar in Queens. She shared an apartment with a female roommate who was actually her lover. A second-generation Italian girl in a close-knit family of five siblings, Kitty drove her fire red sports car to the Genoveses’ home in Connecticut every weekend.
In James Solomon’s documentary The Witness, Bill Genovese treasures the memory of lazy weekend afternoons spent gabbing with his big sister, 12 years his senior, about their mutual interest in science and history. Bill narrates the documentary that is not so much about Kitty’s life as it is about her brutal demise. Kitty was murdered in 1964, when she was 28 years old, near her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. It was a random attack, witnessed by many people in neighboring high-rises. The apathy of those witnesses, who saw the stabbing or heard Kitty’s screams, and failed to come to her aid, shocked New Yorkers. It also inspired many theories that still inform the study of abnormal human behavior in psychology and sociology classes.
In the New York Times coverage of Kitty’s death, Martin Gansberg reported that 37 eyewitnesses to her 3 am struggle against her murderer Winston Moseley simply went back to sleep.
“For many years, I didn’t know much more than what was written in that story,” Bill says, in an interview at the Elinor Brunin Munroe Film Center in New York City. “My family did not go to Moseley’s trial, and we stayed out of the limelight.”
Bill was 16 when Kitty died. “My decision to become a Marine and to go to Vietnam was inspired in part by my sister’s death,” Bill recalls. “I did not want to be one of those people who sat by and did nothing, but I was also inspired by President Kennedy’s inaugural speech—the ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ speech. It was the call of the times.”
Bill took an immersion course in Vietnamese and served his country as an interpreter and intelligence officer. He lost both his legs in Vietnam. “For a moment, lying alone in a rice paddy,” Bill says, “injured and in shock, I understood what Kitty must have felt. I thought no one was going to notice me there, but then my fellow Marines rescued me.”
When Bill returned from the war, he went to college, and earned an undergraduate degree with a double major in psychology and theology and, later, an MBA. Much of his career was devoted to managing treatment centers for psych patients. The Witness is about the long journey Bill embarked upon in order to discover exactly what happened to Kitty that cold March night in 1964.
The filmmaker and his subject forged a close bond that deepened after Solomon lost a younger sibling to cancer during the decade-long process of making The Witness. In the course of the documentary, Bill gathers police reports, reads trial transcripts and interviews with surviving witnesses. He also speaks with one of Moseley’s sons, and a few prominent broadcast journalists. Solomon commissioned excellent sketches of the surrounding buildings to explain sight-lines, and Bill’s mounting evidence that many of the witnesses were not eyewitness to Kitty’s death, but instead were earwitnesses. One earwitness tells Bill that Kitty’s screams sounded like Fay Wray’s in King Kong (1933). In 2004, another New York Times article about Kitty’s stabbing casts doubt on Gansberg’s 1964 reporting of it.
During production, Bill hired an actress to scream as Kitty did that night, from the two locations where she was attacked. It is the sole reenactment in The Witness, and perhaps the documentary’s most disturbing sequence. Bill mounted cameras and recording equipment in nine nearby apartments, hoping for more empirical evidence. “The goal of the documentary was not to spoon-feed or force-feed the audience but to say ‘here’s what we found and what do you think?’” Bill says. “I thought of the reenactment as too self-indulgent, but I wanted to know what it was like on that very street, if we could duplicate the scream.” Solomon films Bill’s reaction in medium long shots, as he sits in his wheelchair not far from the actress. “More people, I believe, heard my sister than fessed up to hearing her,” he says.
On the surface, The Witness chronicles Bill Genovese’s obsessive search for an elusive truth in the circumstances surrounding Kitty’s demise. It was an investigation that tested his family’s patience, although not his wife’s—Dale Genovese remained steadfast in her support. Perhaps she understood that her husband’s journey was a search for meaning, a reexamination of his own life. For Bill, the actress’s ululations concretized Kitty’s death. They were his screams, the final relinquishment of his grief for a beloved sister.