Witness for the Prosecution

Witness for the ProsecutionDamn you!  Damn you!

In what may be the first spoiler alert in film history, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) ends with a narrator telling the audience not to spill the beans or else ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s been almost 60 years and the secret has remained very well kept.  Such is our appreciative culture and literate writers that few great movies’s secrets and highlights go unreferenced.  And while Witness for the Prosecution had been well known to me as a title, its cover suggested something out of Matlock.  Perhaps advertising types had either never seen the film or simply felt that the image of Charles Laughton in a barrister’s wig would not appeal, but the main character in the film does not grace the DVD cover.  Instead, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, those grand names that mean almost nothing to the vast majority, show up looking vampiric and hysterical, respectively.  Few would know that they were missing another hilarious and clever entry in Billy Wilder‘s excellent career.  You mightn’t even know it’s set in Britain.

After a heart attack, famous (or infamous) barrister Sir Wilfred Robard (Charles Laughton) is under the watchful eye of his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester).  She is there to smother him with fussing, no cigars, no brandy, and absolutely no more criminal cases.  The old codger doesn’t like that very much, but he’s inclined to accept it.  That is until his friend Mayhew (Henry Daniell) shows up with a juicy case.  A delightful fellow, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), is soon to be arrested for the murder of a middle aged woman.  She doted on him a bit, but he didn’t take any money and is simply an innocent man at the center of a web of circumstantial evidence.  No, no, he will not take the case, but will pass it on to his protégé Brogan-Moore (John Williams).  But, when Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) shows up, being Vole’s sole alibi, and none too likable, Brogan-Moore will take up the case out of lawyerly duty rather than conviction.  So Wilfred decides to try the case himself, with Miss Plimsoll constantly under foot.

Witness for the Prosecution got itself a fair number of nominations–Best Picture, Director, Actor (Laughton), Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Sound, and Editing–but came away with nothing.  If The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) hadn’t been the opponent, I would have called it robbery.  How it didn’t get a nomination for Adapted Screenplay, I could not say.  “If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you.”  Like many Billy Wilder films, there’s a strong element of verbal sparring and misanthropy and in Charles Laughton’s capable voice, they are things of beauty.  His partner in comedy, Elsa Lanchester, an actress you don’t know you know, was Laughton’s wife and is remarkably good even for her.

The plot, from Agatha Christie‘s short story and play, is almost secondary to Laughton’s character and the dialogue from Wilder and Harry Kurnitz (adaptation by Lawrence B. Marcus, a distinction I cannot currently explain).  But as far as secondary elements are concerned, it is a doozy.  If I recall correctly, and there’s no reason to believe that I do, Wilder remarked that Christie was a master–or mistress–of plot (though less on the dialogue and characterization).  Jokes, he said, were easy–which I find remarkable considering he was Austrian–but a good plot is harder.  So, Witness for the Prosecution was a pretty good fit.  Christie’s allocation of setups and twists with Wilder’s sense of humor created something wildly entertaining and essential viewing for the would-be cinephile.

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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