DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "The Witness" tells the story of one of the most talked about crimes in modern American history, the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Director James Solomon traces the attempts of the victim's younger brother Bill to make sense of what happened to his sister. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it gets you thinking about what happens when a news story becomes a legend.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Every culture has an unofficial mythology, a collection of emblematic stories that nearly everyone knows and believes, even if they're not altogether true. One of this country's darker myths centers on the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old New Yorkers stabbed to death near her apartment in Queens on March 13, 1964. It wasn't the victim or killer who entered pop mythology. It was their audience. A few days after the crime, The New York Times ran an article reporting that while Genovese shrieked for help during three separate knife attacks, 38 neighbors watched for half an hour and did nothing.
Almost overnight, and for nearly half a century thereafter, her murder prompted breast beating about urban heartlessness and American apathy, all those selfish bystanders who didn't want to get involved. Like many of you, I was raised on this ghastly story, which has been rehearsed over and over in everything "Perry Mason" to Lena Dunham's show "Girls."
That's one reason I was so engrossed by "The Witness," a new documentary that show us the case in entirely new ways. Filmmaker James Solomon follows Kitty's younger brother Bill Genovese, who decades after the crime is still as obsessed with what happened as his siblings are eager to put it behind them.
Tooling around in a wheelchair, Bill tracks down everyone from Kitty's then neighbors to reporters who covered the case. Turns out things weren't nearly so simple as they once seemed. It isn't merely that The Times' story was filled with errors - there were two attacks not three, most of the witnesses heard only random screams and a couple of them did call the police. We discover that Kitty's death was not so lonely as we've always believed. Bill also interviews journalists to learn how this particular version of the story became the one we all know.
Here CBS newsman Mike Wallace teases a radio broadcast on the murder, then answers Bill's questions about how the story became so big.
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MIKE WALLACE: This is Mike Wallace. Why did 38 people fail to act? The answer to that question concerns every one of us who fears perhaps that apathy has become part of our way of life.
BILL GENOVESE: The question becomes was it worth all the attention it got, or was it a media creation?
WALLACE: Oh, I think to a certain degree it was a media creation. No one investigated the 38. No one followed up on it or anything of that nature.
GENOVESE: Do you have any feel for why that would've been with this case versus any other case?
WALLACE: Because it was taken seriously by The New York Times.
POWERS: Of course, even The New York Times was never powerful enough to make the Genovese murder a touchstone for 50 years. So how did it happen? For starters, the mythic version has a thrillingly awful clarity - a girl gets killed as her neighbors callously watch, and that enters your head and sticks. I heard it as a kid and never forgot it. Then, too, it fits perfectly into a modern ecosystem of ideas and feelings about urban isolation and the collapse of community. It clearly confirmed the worldview of The Times' editor on the piece, Abe Rosenthal, who highlighted the bleakness to create a splashy story.
For Bill Genovese, this official narrative wasn't enough. Kitty's murder changed his life irrevocably, even leading him to serve in Vietnam because he wasn't going to be apathetic. But his investigations keep leading him to a truth of life deeper than journalism - it's gnawing ambiguity. He discovers unfillable holes in the story, loose ends that can never be tied up. The killer, a sociopath named Winston Moseley, won't talk to him. And Bill never learns why if folks called the cops that night, no cops came to help her.
Bill's research also gives us, and him, something important. It starts to restore the individuality his sister lost when her murder became a legend. We see footage of her as a lovely young woman dancing. We hear friends say she was a brilliant mimic. Bill talks to old guys in the bar she managed, and they obviously adored her. She was one of the boys, they say. Her death devastated Mary Ann Zielonko, Kitty's roommate and romantic partner, a fact that didn't come out back then.
"The Witness" also serves as a useful moral corrective. The mythic version of Kitty's story feeds our most cynical paranoia by suggesting we're all alone in a cruel indifferent world. It saps our spirit by making the world appear out even worse than it actually is. In this week, when one hate-filled man murdered 49 innocent souls at a nightclub, it's worth remembering that the citizens of Orlando - far from refusing to get involved - lined up block after block to donate blood.
DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He co-wrote with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai a new book called "WKW: The Cinema Of Wong Kar Wai."
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