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You're a witness to a crime, and you saw the criminal and which way he's going. There's just one problem: you can only offer a uselessly vague description of no help to anyone. The best you can do is that you're almost certain he wasn't wearing a hat. This happens with both civilians and police officers.
Truth in Television, when it comes to witness descriptions, especially in cases when it wasn't obvious that the suspect was committing a crime at the time.
May result from watching The Nondescript commit a crime, since they're naturally unmemorable.
- In one issue of Groo the Wanderer, Groo asks a passerby whether he has seen the man who was standing next to where Groo was standing a while back.
- Subverted in the third Valhalla album, when Thor tries to describe his encounter with a myserious stranger. Loki asks "How many eyes did he have?", and it occurs to Thor that the stranger was, in fact, one-eyed, which means it was probably Odin (who has been missing for a while).
Films — Live-Action
- James Bond examples:
- In Octopussy, as Bond speeds through the American Air Base's security checkpoint to stop a bomb from detonating, the Security Guard has only this to say:
Security Guard: Captain, some nut drove through here in a stolen car. Wants the base commander, and he's wearing a red shirt!
- (To be fair, it's a pretty fancy red shirt.)
- In The Man with the Golden Gun, when Bond talks to Miss Anders about Scaramanga:
Bond: How will I recognize him?
- In Desperado, the first description Bucho gets of Navajas is that he has brown hair and eyes, which Bucho points out, is not exactly distinctive in Mexico. The description then goes on to list some actually useful information.
- From Barton Fink:
Barton Fink: He... he said he liked Jack Oakie pictures.
- In Fargo, the policewoman asks a woman to describe Steve Buscemi, she says that he's uncircumsized and "kinda funny looking," being unable to elaborate further.
- In Se7en, Detective Mills interviews John Doe's neighbors, and gets descriptions of a man between ages 30 and 40, between 150 and 200 pounds, and between 5'6" and 6'3" in height.
- No Country for Old Men: "What do you suggest that we circulate, 'looking for a man who has recently drunk milk'?"
- In Batman Begins, you can't help but feel sorry for the Gotham cops trying to explain the Batmobile to their operator. "It's a black... tank!" Luckily there's no mistaking it once you've seen it.
- In Cornered, when a man goes running out of the store, the best description a bystander can give is "he was wearing a hat".
- In Airheads, Officer Wilson is told to look for Kayla, Chazz's girlfriend, on the Sunset Strip in LA. He's told she's a "blonde wearing something tight and black", unfortunately, nearly every female looks like that, making him mutter "Great, grand, wonderful...". Although he does find her eventually.
- Reversed and Played for Laughs in Loaded Weapon 1, when in teh background of one scene. a man is seen being asked by cops to describe a suspect. He gives an outrageous description, claiming the suspect had big red lips, eyes as big as plates, and so on. In a later scene, a person looking like Mr. Potatohead actually having these features is arrested by the police.
- Played with in Martin Lawrence vehicle Blue Streak. In one scene, an inexperienced cop tracking a suspect tries to give a description over the radio, but is hung up on the suspect's greasy, dirty hair. After he spends too long being fixated on that, Lawrence's character angrily butts in and starts pointing out more useful things to be noting.
Man, are you a cop or a barber? Stop staring at his hair and take a look at his arm. That's a prison tat. Your boy has done some time.
- In the first Sammy Keyes book, the heroine sees a murderer but can only tell police that the man is of average height and weight, looking about thirty.
- In Maskerade, the angry mob is absolutely certain of the identity of the Ghost of the Ankh-Morpork Opera House; he's the guy in the mask. Granny Weatherwax has to point out the flaw in their logic, and when that doesn't work, she has to exploit that exact same flaw.
- A variation in Clear and Present Danger. The FBI actually have a detailed description of Felix Cortez. The problem is that since his appearance is so generic (Latino male in his mid-30s to early 40s, average height and build, no Visual Distinguishing Marks) that a description is totally useless.
- Without Remorse, also by Tom Clancy, made use of this trope as a plot point. retired Navy SEAL turned Vigilante Man John Kelly hit on a nearly perfect disguise early on; on the rare occasions when the presence of an innocent bystander meant he couldn't simply Leave No Witnesses, the best description the police ever got was "a homeless guy". He did have one near-miss towards the end of the book, but even a trained police officer has trouble providing a detailed description of the suspect when a) it's the middle of the night on a poorly-lit street and b) he's being held at gunpoint.
- Several of the crime novels of PD James describe female characters as "hatless", which sounds an odd thing to remark on in a novel with a modern setting. However, James was born in 1920 and has been writing since the days when it was more remarkable for a woman's outfit not to include a hat.
- Occasionally lampshaded in Criminal Minds when the profilers give an especially vague description.
Local Cop: A white male, between twenty and forty living somewhere in Virginia?
- At one point, when a profile turned up something like "middle-aged white man who hates his job," Morgan sarcastically offered to go arrest half of D.C. Fortunately for D.C, they can usually narrow it down eventually.
- In an episode of Wire in The Blood, the resident profiler helps the police unit he is attached to by deducing that the suspect is able to drive a car. That's all he's got.
- In The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", a police force has The Stupendous Yappi, a psychic detective on the payroll:
Cop: Look, all I know is that so far, Yappi has provided more solid, concrete leads on this case than you have. Now, if you don't mind, I have to get an A.P.B. out on a white male, age 17 to 34, with or without a beard, maybe a tattoo...
- To add insult to injury, Mulder has moments before provided a very detailed (and as it turns out rather accurate) profile of the killer.
- This also applies to direction giving. In Cheers, Carla complains that Woody's directions to his house are useless because he told her he's in an apartment over a shop with dead ducks in the window. Because he lives in Chinatown, all of the shops have dead ducks in the windows, mutters Carla.
- In Monk, Randy notes a streaker is "Not Jewish".
- In the Psych episode "Psy vs. Psy", Shawn tries to get a look at a suspect on a security camera, but can't see him very well. Later, when trying to "psychically" see the suspect, the best he can come up with is "did not wear corrective lenses".
- Happens to Richard Castle when, owing to a chain of circumstances, he ends up outside while the police are storming a suspect's headquarters only for the suspect to (rather slowly) drive right past him. He misses the license plate, can't see anyone clearly through the tinted windows and ends up only able to vaguely describe the car to the cops, who — given that he's based a very lucrative mystery-writing career on describing things in detail — are less-than-impressed.
Castle: I... it is hard work being a witness. I'm surprised you catch anyone.
- An early episode of Law & Order features an entire street full of people who have been dragged down to the precinct after a murder who can only offer vague, contradictory and nearly-useless descriptions of the victim, the suspect, and exactly what happened between them. Some of the witnesses were standing right next to one or both of these parties. The cops, not surprisingly, are a little exasperated.
- Similarly, in the episode "License to Kill," the detectives try to get a description of a vehicle that was involved in a serious accident and most of the descriptions contradict each other. The only thing all the witnesses agree on is that the vehicle had a yellow ribbon bumper sticker, which is not useful at all because these bumper stickers are very common (and, usually being magnetic, very easily removed). In a subversion, there turns out to be a good reason for the differing descriptions there were two vehicles.
- In Babylon 5, "There All the Honor Lies", witness is Minbari — he is bald and has bone on his head. See why it's a mostly unhelpful description? The tone in his voice makes it clear that Sheridan is in Sarcasm Mode when he says it, knowing full well how useless the information is. Garibaldi echoes this sentiment when he mutters "We're going to need a big line-up room."
- The rather unhelpful description of Sayid that Shannon gives the security officer in a season 1 episode of Lost.
Shannon: Some Arab guy left his bag here.
- The recurring Mad TV character Miss Swan started out this way, driving cops insane by repeatedly describing a suspect as "He look-a like a man."
- In Warehouse 13, "Implosion", Artie asks Pete to describe a thief he saw walk past immediately after having been basically knocked out by an implosion grenade. All Pete can up with is, "not... female?"
- The Wire
- A murder victim is asked who shot him shortly before dying was said to have only told a police officer it was "a guy with a gun."
- In another episode, a wealthy white developer witnesses a murder. The homicide detective who interviewed him summarized his testimony as "BNBG" — "Big Negro Big Gun." This was especially ironic because the shooter in question was Omar Little, who not only had a distinctive outfit (duster, do-rag and flak jacket) but also a huge facial scar.
- Breaking Bad. Hank is interrogating a meth-head:
Hank: "So...let me get this straight, Russell. You got this meth from 'some dude' wearing khaki pants, who — you're 80% sure — had a mustache. And that's it? That's your brain working at full capacity?"
- Subverted yet played straight in Everybody Hates Chris where a cookie truck is held up by a man leading a group of scouts. The driver gives a through description of the man in question right down to having a limp, however since he started off by saying that the guy was black the police didn't hear anything else.
- In The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Todd suspects that his subordinate Dave has stolen his entire inventory. When he gives a description to the police, he's completely unable to give any helpful information about him. The cop issues a sarcastic APB to lampshade Todd's useless description.
- From Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike escapes from being held hostage by the Initiative, but is unable to recall any faces.
Buffy: So you saw their faces but you can't describe them?
- Subverted in an episode of Justified Boyd is trying to find out who killed two drug dealers under his protection but the only witness is a big dog person and describes people by comparing them to dog breeds. The fact that the man she saw looked like a husky does not help Boyd much. However, when she mentions that like a husky the man had blue eyes, he realizes that it was Robert Quarles.
- Parodied in the opening scenes of Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap. A radio broadcast gives what seems to be a fairly detailed description of the serial killer on the loose, but every single character happens to match that description.
- In Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, there is a race where everyone drives a red McLaren, but police will still say "suspect is driving a red McLaren" (which is admittedly accurate enough... just pull over any red McLaren you see dammit!) Also, in other races if you go fast enough, they'll sometimes only get the colour of your vehicle.
- Averted in the very first Hot Pursuit, where cops would give out more deatil, for example, "Half-mile from Summit Tunnel".
- Hot Pursuit 2010 provides us with this example:
Police Dispatcher: Suspect is in the sand, heading toward the rocks!"
- In the original Hot Pursuit, as well as High Stakes, cops refer to any add-on car as a "Sports Car", regardless of whatever the car actually is.
- There's a non-criminal variant in Fallout 3, in which the best description the Lone Wanderer can come up with for his/her own father is "middle-aged."
- When the PC has a bounty, it gives only your name, sex and race.
- Fridge Brilliance realizes that there's very few people that wander in the wasteland of DC, especially middle-aged men that wear Vault uniforms. More than likely, you're still wearing either a Vault 101 Jumpsuit or Vault 101 security armor.
- Mafia II: "Suspect is about 6 feet tall, average size!"
- Trying to describe spies in Team Fortress 2 to team-mates can fall into this. Shouting the spy's disguise might work if he's in the heart of battle, but if he's just changed (which good players do often) or has the knife "Your Eternal Reward", its likely he's someone completely different. Or invisible.
- Happens in LA Noire. One witness can only describe a suspected criminal as 'sorta average'.
Cleric: Does he have any distinguishing features?
Cleo: You have a rabbi? What's he like?
Homer: I can't wait 'till they throw his hatless butt in jail.
- Another episode had him trying to give his current position to another officer over the radio
Chief Wiggum: Oh, um... I'm, uh, I'm on a road. Uh, looks to be asphalt. Um, ah geez. Trees. Shrubs. I'm directly under the Earth's Sun... now!
- In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore", Homer tries to find Apu's cousin Kavi, who is "medium height, dark complexion, brown eyes and black hair". The trouble is, he's in India. Luckily he only has to ask two passers-by if they're Kavi.
- In Johnny Bravo, Johnny is accused of stealing cookies stolen by another man he saw. When asked about him, Johnny says that he has two arms. In Johnny's defense, this was a great shout-out to The Fugitive.
- On Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, the gang tries to find a friend's missing owner, but the description they get from him is that the boy has two eyes, two ears and one nose, and is wearing clothes. He adds that he is wearing a pointy hat, but that's no help since he's at a birthday party and everyone's wearing a pointy hat.
- Fridge Brilliance: He's a seeing-eye friend, that is, an imaginary friend dreamed up by a blind kid to serve the same purpose as a seeing-eye dog. Two things: First, details aren't his job; so long as the kid doesn't get run over, it's all good. Second, he was dreamed up by a blind kid — since he's a figment of the kid's imagination, his capacity to actually say anything useful about what he sees would be limited by the fact that the kid can't see either, so he doesn't exactly have the vocabulary for visual details.
- On My Life as a Teenage Robot, episode "See No Evil", Jenny gets descriptions from several people in the crowd, that are all things like "he had a coat and a hat" before someone finally goes, "I remember — he was invisible!"
- In Snowball's introductory episode in Pinky and The Brain, the Brain asks Pinky to describe Snowball. While Pinky does note a defining detail (he had a tattoo on his leg underneath his fur), his description beforehand was delivered in an... interesting manner:
Pinky: Ooh. Well, he had two eyes and--and... oh, a mouth right below his nose.
- South Park: When Butters' mom tries to drown him, she blames his disappearance on "some Puerto Rican guy" of average Puerto Rican height.
- This is one of the reasons why witness testimony isn't considered very reliable in court: we just don't pay attention to these kinds of things until they become significant, at which point the criminal is halfway gone and it's too late.
- Fortunately, a halfway decent cop will, when taking down a complaint of crime from a victim (or a witness statement later), use questions and techniques to get some crucial details down where possible. Sex, age, colour, height, build, hair, clothing/jewellery, distinguishing marks, any reason you'd remember him and was he carrying anything. And that's just the first set of things the cop will ask about.
- AMBER alerts are always sent out when certain criteria are met after a child goes missing or is abducted. Understandably, sometimes the person they were last seen with has a description like: "Last seen with a white male, 5'11 to 6'1, wearing a beige jacket and blue jeans".
- Until his confirmed death in 2011, Osama Bin Laden's official status was either dead, not dead, or none of the above.