UK Release Date: 10th September 2018
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder, Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz
Starring: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, Norma Varden, Torin Thatcher
Synopsis: A seriously ill barrister defies his doctors to defend an apparently innocent man who is facing trial for the murder of a wealthy widow.
Of the many adaptations of her work prior to her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is said to have described Billy Wilder‘s 1957 take on Witness for the Prosecution as one of the few she truly enjoyed. Watching the film today, it’s easy to see why the film was so entertaining to Christie – it should be entertaining to absolutely everyone. Wilder’s movie doesn’t sacrifice any of the tension of the courtroom, but it’s also a playful and crowd-pleasing tale with a real lightness of touch. It’s everything you’d expect from Wilder, and it looks mighty handsome in its new Blu-ray transfer.
As much as Wilder’s flair and Christie’s source material are enormous parts of making the movie work, the film benefits from a tremendous roster of all-time acting greats. At the centre of it all is the hulking, Churchillian presence of Charles Laughton as experienced barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who has just returned to work after experiencing a heart attack. His full-time nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) insists he relax, but Sir Wilfrid is soon coaxed away from the easy life by the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who is about to be charged with the murder of a wealthy widow. The case becomes even more beguiling when Vole’s mercurial wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) shows up on the scene.
Wilder delights in allowing the twists and turns of Christie’s narrative to work their magic and never loses sight of the inherent drama of the courtroom. At the same time, though, he’s keen to inject a sense of comedy to the proceedings, aware that the material is essentially preposterous pulp, rather than the intense ideological wrangling of Inherit the Wind or the life-and-death debate of 12 Angry Men, which was released in the same year. This is a script that’s as witty and sharp with a punchline as it is capable of eliciting gasps of shock from the audience. Three years before Psycho turned the prospect of plot spoilers into marketing, Witness for the Prosecution ends with a playful voiceover urging viewers to keep the surprise ending secret from their friends.
Laughton’s performance is perfectly calibrated for this sort of tone, capturing Sir Wilfrid as a rather pathetic figure, seeking to reclaim his youth through the prospect of clearing his throat in a courtroom again. His relationship with Elsa Lanchester – his real wife, although their relationship wasn’t all roses – as the over-bearing nurse is brilliant, with Lanchester’s patronising baby talk the obvious contrast to Laughton’s booming voice. It’s this relationship that Wilder mines for surprisingly sweet comedic touches, as well as the near-slapstick spectacle of Lanchester descending a stairlift with a hypodermic syringe held aloft.
With Laughton and Lanchester serving as the movie’s key comedic double act, much of the dramatic gravitas is handed to Marlene Dietrich, playing the title character. Initially positioned as the questionably motivated wife of Tyrone Power’s wholesome, devoted accused killer, her role becomes all the more complex when the prosecuting barrister tosses her into the witness box, with some incendiary revelations to deliver. Dietrich gives the role the necessary layers of depth and artifice, as a femme fatale as intriguing as the one presented in Wilder’s Double Indemnity more than a decade earlier, though the audience is never quite sure on to which side she will fall.
And that is transparently the goal of Witness for the Prosecution – to keep the audience guessing until the final moments. It’s certainly true that the final reel devolves into a madcap run of twists that become slightly too unruly and over-the-top, but Wilder wastes no time in delivering another terrific comic moment between Laughton and Lanchester to ensure that the final note this movie sings – as you’d expect from Wilder – is a triumphant high one.
There’s some fun stuff here from Eureka, including an affectionate look at the movie from film professor Neil Sinyard, a commentary track with critic Kat Ellinger and an archive interview with Wilder. The highlight, though, is Simon Callow discussing Laughton’s work in the movie, as well as his turbulent but undeniable chemistry with Lanchester.
Pop or Poop?
Witness for the Prosecution makes brilliant use of a terrific cast of bona fide legends, anchored by Charles Laughton at his best, playing the playful curmudgeon at the centre of a murder case. Wilder’s directorial style is unshowy, allowing the natural tension and drama of the courtroom to come to the surface, against the backdrop of carefully drawn characters. It gets a little ridiculous at the end but, by that point, Wilder has cast his spell and delivered yet another classic in his enviable repertoire.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Witness for the Prosecution is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Eureka Video.