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Key Witness (1960) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

gang jeff police film

Principal social theme: violence/gangs

MGM. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Jeffrey Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Pat Crowley, Joby Baker, Susan Harrison, Johnny Nash, Corey Allen, Frank Silvera, Bruce Gordon, Terry Burnham, Dennis Holmes, Ted Knight, and John Zaremba. Written by Alfred Brenner and Sidney Michaels based on the novel by Frank Kane. Cinematography by Harold E. Wellman. Edited by Ferris Webster. Music by Charles Wolcott. Produced by Kathryn Hereford. Directed by Phil Karlson. B&W. 82 minutes.


Although somewhat overdone, Key Witness is basically a dramatic parable about the influence of gangs and the intimidation of the public by them and their violent culture. The production stressed its social concerns by commissioning the attorney general of California to write a preamble highlighting the issue with which the film opens. Dennis Hopper, who played the gang leader, was so motivated by the theme that twenty-eight years later he directed another film, Colors , dedicated to the same issue, also set in the streets of East Los Angeles.


Jeff Morrow (Jeffrey Hunter) is a realtor who stops at a phone booth in East Los Angeles to make a business call. He watches the teenagers dance to music from a jukebox in the nearby diner, when a motorcyclist (Dennis Hopper) drives into the restaurant. He and his gang surround Emilio, a Hispanic boy in the street. Jeff telephones the police. The youth is stabbed with a switchblade and his attackers drive off. Jeff rushes to the aid of Emilio, who says, “Cowboy did it!” By the time the police arrive, the boy is dead. No one in the crowd who watched the scene admits seeing anything. Jeff agrees to come to the station, and he identifies the gang leader from a mug shot. He signs a statement and agrees to testify when the case is brought to trial. Meanwhile the gang, consisting of Cowboy, Muggles, Magician, Ruby, and Apple, hear that a witness has been found who will identify Cowboy. He is outraged that anyone on his turf would dare squeal on him. The gang ambushes one of the cops who had recorded Jeff’s name and address in his notebook. They telephone Jeff and threaten to kill his wife and two kids unless he recants his testimony. Jeff telephones the cops for help, but the gang slashes his tires and throws a rock through his window. Cowboy is picked up after a chase. At his arraignment the next day, however, Jeff refuses to testify after his wife is attacked in the corridor right outside the courtroom. Jeff tells Lieutenant Turno (Frank Silvera), the detective in charge of the case, that if they could not protect his wife from violence inside the courthouse, how could they guarantee the safety of his kids. Later, two of the gang members confront Morrow’s son on the playground. Apple, the only black member of the gang, knocks Muggles’s arm when he attempts to shoot the boy, wounding him in the leg. Apple goes to Jeff and asks his help to turn himself over to the police, but Jeff, filled with anger, refuses. The rest of the gang invade Jeff’s home, and he and Apple have to fight for their lives until the police turn up and arrest the entire gang. This time, Jeff tells Turno that there is no doubt he will testify.


In many ways, Key Witness provides a foreshadowing of the growing problem of youth gang violence. Of course, Cowboy’s gang is meant to be taken only on a symbolic level, since this small gang (five members) seems to have the influence of a much larger group of thugs. Also, Cowboy’s gang seems a little too old for the characters they are meant to portray. In allegorical terms, however, the issue is clearly laid out: Much of the power of these gangs stems from the code of silence they can enforce on any innocent bystanders who live in their home neighborhood. When Jeff looks over the witnesses of Emilio’s murder, they all seemed elderly, frightened, and submissive. It also seems clear that the police at this point are largely incapable of dealing with these young offenders. The entire film is seen from Jeff’s viewpoint. How does his attitude change as the film develops? Would an audience member, watching Jeff’s ordeal, be more likely in real life to identify a killer in a street crime or remain silent? Would the concept of a neighborhood watch organization have been useful in this situation? What other methods could have been used to help? Was Lt. Turno’s attitude realistic or fatalistic? Why did Jeff change his opinion about Turno by the end of the film? How did the gang situation in East Los Angeles evolve between the making of Key Witness and Colors ? In what ways are the problems similar or different in both films? In what ways does the attitude of the police and the general public differ in these films? A close study would be helpful to determine which elements of Key Witness remain relevant today.


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