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. For example, 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.
Basically, a witness gives a vague and more or less useless description, with the only definite clues being ultimately irrelevant (or at least apparently unhelpful).
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.
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Anime And Manga
The pilot episode of Trigun has the insurance girls and several groups of bounty hunters looking for Vash the Stampede. Each of them is using a description of Vash that is accurate, but is vague enough that it also describes one of the bounty hunters. Confusion ensues.
In one Detective Conan case, the police are trying to apprehend a criminal and catch three suspects. The case seems ridiculously easy when they find three eyewitnesses... but then each of those witnesses give vague descriptions (that the criminal was wearing sunglasses, that the criminal was very tall, and that the criminal was an old woman) and none of those traits match any of the suspects. The police eventually have to figure out what conditions took place to cause each of the eyewitnesses to see the traits they saw, and which suspect all three applied to.
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 mysterious 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).
Bruce Wayne invokes this trope in Batman: Year One. When creating a disguise (pre-Batsuit), he dresses in generic clothing, and adds a large fake facial scar, noting that "a single identifying mark" is all most people will remember, despite his face being otherwise completely unconcealed.
Bond: How will I recognize him? Anders: Tall, slim and dark. Bond: So's my aunt. Anders: Yes, but how can I tell you? He's not like other men. (gestures toward her chest)He has three... Bond: Fascinating anatomical tidbit. But probably the most useless piece of information I've ever heard. Unless, of course, the "Bottoms Up" is a strip club and Scaramanga is performing.
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.
Barton Fink: He... he said he liked Jack Oakie pictures. (beat) Detective Mastrionotti: You know, ordinarily we say anything you might remember could be helpful. But I'll be frank with you, Fink. That is not helpful.
In Fargo, when the policewoman asks a woman to describe Steve Buscemi, she says that he's uncircumcised 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 , and between and 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 the 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.
Cellular "He's the one on a cell phone." "EVERYONE'S on a cell phone."
In El Mariachi, El Mariachi looks nothing like Azul, but the only description Moco's men have been given is "wears black, and carrying a guitar case".
Played with in Taken. When the daughter is being kidnapped, her father tells her specifically to scream identifying characteristics into her cell phone, so he can have something to work with when rescuing her. That doesn't really add much evidence to his searching though, and the real lead comes from when the kidnapper talks into the cell phone after kidnapping the daughter. She does manage to describe a tattoo the man has, which lets Brian identify the gang.
In The Film of the Series of I Spy, Eddie Murphy's character is kidnapped and forced to reveal the identity of a spy he is working with. He only gives a very vague description that could fit lots of people. It turns out that the kidnapping and interrogation are staged and Murphy's character is praised for giving such little information.
In DC Cab, Harold asks Mr. Rhythm if he remembers which cab he found the violin in. Mr. Rhythm replies: "Of course I do. It was the yellow one."
After one of the murders committed by the Outlaw Couple in Sightseers, we hear on the car radio that the police are looking for "a ginger-faced man and an angry woman."
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.
He was about...he was 'about'. He was about twenty, or about thirty. On Watch reports across the continent he was anywhere between, oh, six feet two inches tall and five feet nine inches tall, hair all shades from mid-brown to blond, and his lack of distinguishing features included his entire face. He was about...average.
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.
In The Valley Of Fear, the court system in the eponymous Wretched Hive browbeats the witnesses into reducing their testimony to "the perpetrator had a beard". (This was 1875.) It's standard enough practice that members of the local crime network regard getting arrested for felonies the way urban hooligans regard a night's lock-up for disorderly conduct - an inconvenience at worst and a rite of passage at best.
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 "Snake Eyes," the profile indicated that they were looking for a gambler . . . in Atlantic City.
In what was probably a direct reference to Criminal Minds in an episode of Monk, Disher hands the Captain a folder, and says that the FBI profile just arrived. The Captain holds it to his head and says "Let's see: he's white, aged 25-40, lives alone, and hates his job." Disher says that's right, and asks the Captain how he knows. The Captain replies that "They all say that. It's useless."
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 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 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. This episode was a comment on homelessness in New York at the time. Many of the witnesses were mentally ill people who had been dumped on the streets. The one moderately functional one says she didn't see anything because she doesn't have the glasses social services has been promising to get for her, and asks the cops if they can help her with that. Finally, one of the people, who is quite elderly, and was initially dismissed, actually turns out to be the healthiest, sanest person there, with some useful information.
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.
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 Nigger 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.
Invoked by De'londa Brice, who wants her son Namond to be a drug dealer and makes him cut off his ponytail, claiming that it lets even white police officers easily identify him.
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?
Spike: Well, they were human. Two eyes each, Kind of in the middle.
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.
In season 4, the Marshals need to locate Drew Thompson who 30 years ago faked his own death. They have no official records of what he looked like and Drew made sure to destroy all photos of himself before he disappeared. They locate his ex-wife but all they get from her is a description of what he looked like 30 years ago and she might be lying about that. In desperation they have her look at DMV photos of local men who are the right age and she points out twenty four men who might be Drew. Boyd Crowder and the Detroit Mob are also searching for Drew but they don't fare much better. They end up resorting to taking photos of the men they think might be Drew and sending them to Theo Tonin who knew Drew in the 80s. It turns out that Drew is the local sheriff who was known to both sides and has been helping the Marshals in their search.
In one episode of NCIS, the victim's co-worker says that the victim called in sick, but that she saw her just an hour later walking down a street with a man that wasn't her husband, and that she didn't look sick at all. When Ziva asks her to describe the man, she answers that "he was a male." A subversion, though, since it turns out she was Obfuscating Stupidity. In another episode, a man witnesses a close friend being murdered right in front of him and he's so shocked by what he witnesses that the only thing he can remember about the killer is that he was wearing a blue hat.
El Chavo del ocho: Professor Girafales once gave Quico a cat as a birthday gift. When the cat vanished and Quico went looking for him, the only description he offered what that he had four paws. Don Ramon asked, in Sarcasm Mode, if he had two eyes. Comically Missing the Point, Quico confirmed it in excitement.
In Person of Interest, Reese is known as "The Man in the Suit" because the official police description of him is "Tall, dark hair, nice suit," a description that probably matches at least 10,000 people in New York City. The police actually have some photos of him taken when he was questioned in the pilot but at the time he was homeless, had a bushy beard and shabby clothes. The photos are not useful in identifying how he looks once he cleans up.
Kelly: Most armed hold-up victims are so freaked out that all they see is the gun. But George has got these guys down to their "blue on white high-cut joggers."
Joss: Who wears high-cut joggers these days?
Mark: Funnily enough, Joss, that wasn't the point Kelly was making.
It turns out she faked the robbery herself.
Deliberately invoked in an episode of Rookie Blue when a bank robber has a (fake) baby strapped to his chest specifically so all the witnesses focus on the baby and fail to notice any identifying details. Even Andy, a trained police officer, is not able to give a decent description because her primary concern was that the baby did not get hurt.
Parodied in an an episode of Community, when the notorious "Ass Crack Bandit" terrorizes Greendale. Duncan(a psychology professor) and Britta(a psych major) are brought in to profile the Bandit, but the best that they can come up with is that "He's angry...OR just fell in love", and that he "Hates money, or loves it, or doesn't care about money, and hates butts or loves them."
The Dog's attempt to describe Cousin Cathy in Footrot Flats includes that she only has hair on the top of her head and she walks on her hind legs, because all humans look alike to him. Fortunately, Wal can't understand him anyway.
Played with in an early Dave Chappelle routine. Chapelle pretends to be the witness to a crime ostensibly committed by a black person, and the cop taking the description. "He was tall. And his hat was on backwards!" "Good! That's good. Hat...was on...backwards...anything else?" "...he was black." "Ah! Say no more! Big nose, big lips, dick hangin' out? Give me a minute, I'll draw him from memory. Actually, get the stencils..."
In another bit, he talks about the cops sending an APB for a black man "between 6 and 4, between 120 and ".
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 that description basically boils down to coat, hat, and scarf, plus they are 'medium build'. As almost every single character happens to be wearing that outerwear when they show up, and is supposed to be cast as 'medium build', this is completely unhelpful.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon tells Puck to smear the love potion on the eyes of a youth dressed in Athenian garb. Given the play is set in a forest just outside of Athens, it is perhaps not surprising that Puck smears the potion on the eyes of the wrong youth dressed in Athenian garb.
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, given how few of those exist; just pull over any red McLaren you see!) 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. This is a reuse of the chatter used when the player drives the fictional El Nino.
Most Wanted (and Carbon, by extension, since it reuses a lot of scanner chatter) has varying levels of this when the dispatcher reports she doesn't have the make or model of your car. Sometimes it's reasonable but frustrating ("Hold on for the description, we're having a bit of trouble with our translator) sometimes it falls squarely into this trope ("Caller says it's a sports car." You can practically hear the dispatcher rolling her eyes).
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. Also it can be assumed that you look like him.
Trying to describe spies in Team Fortress 2 to teammates 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 L.A. Noire. One witness can only describe a suspected criminal as 'sorta average'.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko is hired by Playboy X to kill someone. Unfortunately his description is unhelpful, to say the least:
Playboy X: Son ain't too diesel or nuthin', but he a regular lookin dude, knowwhatimean? And he don't flash his guac too much, but you can see it in his eye, he a hustler.
Playboy X: Homie ain't too brollic, but he ain't scrawny neither, and he beats down on him a little you dig? I mean, he ain't too bummy, but he grimy, too.
Niko: ...so he's the average one?
Playboy X: Look, he brown skinned B, motherfucker be rockin' baggy clothes, all that, jewels and he stay fresh with the clean sneakers, knowwhatimean? But sometimes a bandanna.
Niko:: Look. I need more than that to go on.
At this point X gives up and gives Niko a camera phone so he can go to the place the guy hangs out and send him pictures so he can point out who the target is.
The Grand Theft Auto series in general has the police giving highly generic descriptions over the radio, likely to cut down on voice work. A stolen police car is a "police car", a sports car of any make is simply designated by "[color] sports car", the same likewise applies to any generalization of vehicle type, and a military attack chopper is bizarrely a "red helicopter". Not that this stops any police officer from knowing it's you from this generic description.
Cleric: Does he have any distinguishing features? Haley: Well... he's short. Celia: He has a beard. Haley: He wears heavy armor. Cleric: Ummm, OK... how about any unusual personality traits? Celia: He has an accent. Haley: He likes beer. Celia: And hates trees! Haley: He worships Thor. Cleric: Can you tell me anything about him that differentiates him from every other dwarf?
The Trope Namer as seen above when Chief Wiggum was pursuing the criminal Snake.
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 "The Saga of Carl", Homer and friends look for Carl in Iceland.
Moe: Say, have you seen our friend? He's about this tall, wears a jacket, has no visible tattoos... Homer: Just say he's black. Moe:You say he's black!
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. Brain:(disappointed)How very descriptive.
South Park: When Butters' mom tries to drown him, she blames his disappearance on "some Puerto Rican guy" of average Puerto Rican height.
Archer, when Archer helps a group of illegal immigrants in "Coyote Lovely", using the 1973 Chevy Bel Air station wagon ISIS supplied him, Lana and Cyril for the mission, Malory has Bilbo look search for it via satellite, but only tells him it's a station wagon and it's in Texas. Bilbo pulls up images of random wagons and snarkily asks if each is the right car.
On Hey Arnold!, Arnold and Harold find a crying child who's lost his mother. When asked to describe her, he replies that she's "tall and has hair." Fortunately they had already seen the mother frantically looking for her son and didn't need a more detailed description.
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.
Also, assuming you've called the police, it may be a good idea to use your camera phone to take video. Ask the dispatcher.
In the USA, AMBER alerts are always sent out when certain criteria are met after a child goes missing or is known to have been 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" - something that is understandably unhelpful, given that that nearly 70% of the USA's (male) population is of pan-European descent and largely of that height (170-).
A common demonstration in psych classes is to have someone come in and "steal" something (usually their own backpack or a planted empty one), have students write as detailed of a description as they can of the suspect and the incident, then bring the suspect back in. Many descriptions will either fail to describe the suspect adequately or actually get things wrong.
A police officer, in a Discovery Channel interview once pointed out that even if the information given by psychics were true, it is never the kind of information that is helpful. They usually say things such as a missing person has "left the city." That isn't useful, without some idea where the person has gone. They may say a murder victim was killed by someone who was very angry, but the anger was misdirected or they spend a lot time claiming to have connected with missing person's emotional state, and say "She is scared, but she knows you are looking for her." That may comfort the family of a missing person, but it is of no value to investigators whatsoever.
"All rook arike" is about as much as the detectives expect.
Exaggerated when Olof Palme (a Swedish politician) was shot dead and the police set out to find his killer. Plenty of witnesses were found, but to translate and quote the Swedish wikipedia article:
By joining the different witnesses' statements, you can find the following: the murderer was a man, between 175-190 cm tall, who was wearing either a black coat or trenchcoat, and moved in a way that some described as clumsy, limping, "rolling", and others thought was smooth, and that was between 30 and 50 years old.
Other sources (of varying credibility) also state that the witnesses described him as wearing about 20 different kinds of hats (while still hatless, mind you), and having a clean-shaved Perma Stubble, among other contradictions.