Witness For The Prosecution
US (1957) Dir. Billy Wilder
Returning to work following a heart attack, renowned barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is immediately approached to represent Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man accused of murdering a wealthy widower Mrs. French (Norma Varden). The only person who can give evidence to acquit Vole is his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) – but when she takes the stand she has a few surprises for everyone, including her husband.
Starting life as a short story from the queen of detective mysteries Agatha Christie, legendary US director Billy Wilder was given the task of taking this brief but engaging script (which had also been a play) and turning it into a similarly engaging feature film. This he does with his usual verve and flair aided and abetted by a superb cast and a final act with a volley of swerves and twists so devastating to the plot that a voice over at the end of the film asks viewers to not spoil it for anyone who hadn’t seen the film! The cast were also made to sign a similar proclamation and weren’t given the script for the final scenes until the day of shooting to maintain secrecy.
Wilder’s script also introduced an additional subplot that was not in Christie’s original work but was so loved and readily accepted by Christie’s fans that it has since been incorporated in all subsequent version of this sublime courtroom tale. I am referring to the relationship between Robarts and his private nurse Miss Plimsoll played by Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester – a deliberate choice playing off their natural husband and wife chemistry which shows on screen.
Plimsoll is the earnest and disciplined nurse trying to get the grumpy old barrister to watch his health and obey her orders of rest. They trade barbs mostly with Robarts scoring a decisive win with a scathing wit and endless line of acerbic putdowns but in the end a mutual appreciation has been formed. Christie herself approved, praising this as the best film adaptation of her works which is quite the endorsement.
To the main story and the central conceit concerns Vole’s wife Christine, a German actress and performer he brought to England by means of escaping poverty in her homeland during the war. Vole is broke and struggling to find work but has meanwhile invented a super egg whisk for which he needs financial backing. Since this is pre-Dragons Den Vole is lucky to meet the wealthy Mrs. French who takes a liking to the younger American, although her loyal Scots housekeeper Janet Mackenzie (Una O’Connor) is less then welcoming.
A few weeks after Janet finds her employer dead and having been seen leaving the home prior, Vole is the number one suspect. With evidence mounting against him, including the news that Mrs. French had changed her will to favour Vole, it seems the case against him is watertight. Never one to refuse a challenge, Robarts accepts the case, much to the chagrin of Miss. Plimsoll who has booked a holiday for them in Bermuda.
And there we must leave the summary as to go further would be to spoil everything and we don’t want that. Instead I’ll just say that we are treated to some well observed and cleverly thought out exchanges during the court case from both Robarts and his rival for the prosecution Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher).
Even in this most austere and professional of surroundings, the reputable Robarts’s dialogue is full of witticisms and waspish put downs, made all the more acceptable and fun to watch through his gruff yet doggedly personable charisma. Laughton was absolutely the perfect choice for the role – always a versatile and literal heavyweight actor, now in his later years this seemed almost tailored made for him. I’m sure he was the inspiration for the likes of Rumpole.
The centrifugal force of the entire film is in fact not Robart’s legendary adroitness in the court room but the star witness, Vole’s wife Christine. Despite being aged 56 at the time, Dietrich certainly didn’t look it, maintaining the vampish qualities that shot her to fame in The Blue Angel 27 years earlier. In a cheeky nod to her career making film, Christine is shown in flashback performing at a club called Die Blaue Laterne (The Blue Lantern).
This scene also saw the famous Dietrich leg being exposed, apparently costing $90,000! Would have been cheaper to but a copy of The Blue Angel! While Dietrich gives an assured and multi-faceted performance she was not nominated for an Oscar which surprised everyone, but by doing so would have ruined one of the major twists to the story, thus she was denied.
Despite being a Hollywood production with an Austrian-born American director the film has a distinctly British feel about it, which is a credit to Billy Wilder for being able to adapt to his style to accommodate his largely British cast and famous London setting, namely the Old Bailey. The main American star in the film was action hero Tyrone Power who died – ironically of a heart attack – shortly after this film was made. Having previously played cowboys and even Zorro, Power was able to go out with a bang with a great performance as the beleaguered accused Leonard Vole.
Witness For The Prosecution is a deceptive film that revels in its ability to not only keep the viewer engaged through to the end with the riveting story and superb, mesmerising performances, but by also pulling the rug from under their feet with the final act. A delightful slice of intelligent Christie with a touch of Hitchcock thrown in, this film is unquestionably guilty as charged for providing top quality entertainment, M’lud!
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