Witness for the Prosecution

Dir: Billy Wilder, 1957. Starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester. Mystery/Thriller.
Witness for the Prosecution

Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when  Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.

In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.

Though the film does not always escape its interior theatrical roots, Wilder is creative enough at staging a scene to make every moment more then watchable. Wilder has one major ace up his sleeve, the brilliant actor Charles Laughton in the lead role. He is one of the great film and stage actors of his generation, yet today he might be best remembered for the one film he directed, the creepy Robert Mitchum noirish folk tale The Night of the Hunter. Coming first from the British classical stage, his film career is filled with important roles, including Island of Lost Souls, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and maybe most famously as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, opposite Clark Gable. But Witness for the Prosecution might be his most commercial and accessible film for today’s audiences; it’s a way to get a taste of the portly arrogance mixed with inner doubts that he plays so well.

Wilder, one of cinema’s very best directors, started the decade on fire with the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and followed with more memorable pictures including  Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole, Sabrina, and the popular The Seven Year Itch. He had three movies released in '57, and although The Spirit of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon have not aged well,  Witness for the Prosecution was the third, a film in which Wilder regained form and proved he was a master of moving between styles and even genres. Of course he would follow it with two more diverse classics, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, cementing himself as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. The court room flick has always been a solid go-to genre, and Wilder brings his own taste to Witness for the Prosecution, guaranteeing it a spot high on the list of greats (although Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is still the best court room flick of the decade, if not all time). Wilder proves that in his day he could tackle any subject. The combo of his famous cynicism (and dry wit) with Agatha Christie’s classic dime-store twists is one of film history’s most unlikely superfriend team-ups: two thinking man’s pop artists who loved to entertain with their own way of delivering the goods in unexpected ways. Looking back, it really is like Hitchcock adapting H.G. Wells or something. Two unlikely masters from two different art forms blending so beautifully--then toss in the magic of Laughton and it’s murder!

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 24, 2014 1:29pm
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