Witness for the Prosecution [50 Films Older Than Me #26]

A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #26, which means I’ve just crossed the halfway point. Unfortunately, it’s the end of February and my birthday is in June, which means that I’m nearly 75% the way through the year.

Some spoilers ahead.  Not the biggest spoilers, but for a movie like this you might still want to avoid them.

Witness for the Prosecution

Directed by Billy Wilder.

Release Year:  1957 (13 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Famed lawyer Sir Wilfred Roberts is approached by Leonard Vole, the primary suspect in a murder inquiry. Vole’s only real defense is an alibi provided for him by his wife, the German-born Christine, whom Leonard brought out of Germany at the close of World War II. However, Christine proves an unwilling witness, and later is called to testify on behalf of the prosecution against her husband–something she can only do when it’s revealed they aren’t legally married. This throws the whole case into chaos, causing Sir Wilfrid to scramble to save his client and to understand Christine’s motives.

Starring Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid, Marlene Dietrich as Christine, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, and Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfried’s nurse. Norma Varden is Mrs. French (the murder victim), John Williams and Henry Daniell are lawyers working with Sir Wilfrid, Torin Thatcher is the prosecuting attorney, and Francis Compton is the judge. Ian Wolfe and Una O’Connor each have small but memorable roles (as Sir Wilfrid’s and Mrs. French’s servants, respectively).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Before working on this series, I didn’t know anything about it. As I prepared to watch it, I knew that it was directed by Billy Wilder (who did two of my favorite movies–Some Like It Hot and The Apartment) and based on a play by Agatha Christie, which led me to believe it’d be more of a mystery and less of a film noir.

Reality: I’ve always enjoyed the work of Agatha Christie, loving the puzzles that her books and stories present. I rarely have guessed the answer correctly, but I’ve had a lot of fun “watching” as Poirot or Miss Marple peeled back the curtains on the seemingly unsolvable murder, bringing the clues together in a neat and orderly way. I have never, however, been able to watch any of Agatha Christie’s plays, but have avoided reading them or reading about them, so as to not have the experience spoiled should I ever have the chance to watch one.

Witness for the Prosecution is based on one of those plays, which itself was based on one of her short stories (which I may or may not have read, I don’t remember), so it was cool to see it brought to life on screen.

And unlike most of the famous author’s novels, I actually guessed the ending–or at least much of it (I would say I was about 85-90% correct). But that doesn’t mean it was easy–no, my strategy was just based on the knowledge that back in 1957, the filmmakers and producers made a big deal out of not spoiling the ending–indeed, a narrator comes up over the closing credits and implores the audience to keep the secret. From there it was clear that it wasn’t just going to be that so-and-so was guilty; rather, there had to be a legitimate twist.

So I just asked myself what’s the most surprising but still plausible solution that I can think of. And that led me to the answer, or close to it (the same approach allowed me to figure out the twist in The Crying Game before it was revealed). And the twist works well because it does make sense in the context of the story, once you see it all correctly.

But a good twist does not guarantee a good movie. For that you need some magical (cinemagical) blend of drama, tension, humor and emotion, all wrapped up in a burst of storytelling that makes use of the unique tools of cinema.

And Witness for the Prosecution brings all that to the screen in ample supply, creating a memorable movie (and not just a memorable ending). Sir Wilfrid Roberts is our focus character, and the script does a bang-up job introducing irascible barrister, in the aftermath of a heart attack. The opening sequence has loads of laughs as he sneaks cigars behind her back, giving input on people’s legal troubles and generally frustrating his nurse’s efforts to take care of him. Charles Laughton is outstanding in the role, playing something of a Winston Churchill-type as Sir Wilfrid allows himself to get caught up in the mystery of Christine’s behavior.

Tyrone Power and the supporting cast are all strong as well, but it’s obviously Marlene Dietrich who steals the show as the icy Christine.

For much of the movie the central question is not whether Leonard Vole murdered Mrs. French, but why is Christine acting the way that she is and saying the things that she does. Dietrich gets to explore all sides of this complicated woman, from the struggling woman who first meets Leonard in Germany, to the cold and cruel witness of the film’s title, to shocked and betrayed wife whose whole world suddenly crumbles around her. She’s both brilliant and intensely vulnerable, and while she’s not someone we can genuinely admire (certainly, I didn’t admire her as much as Sir Wilfrid did at the end), we can appreciate the work and skill that Marlene Dietrich put into bringing her to life.

The movie never completely lets go of its theatrical roots–one can completely imagine almost everything we see taking place on stage (even if a lot of the movie is made up of material not found in the play). But it makes up for any perceived limitations this might reflect with such adept rhythm and timing that the whole effect is transporting.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Witness for the Prosecution has got it all, pretty much. It’s funny, it’s puzzling, it’s got some great courtroom drama, and it even sneaks in an emotion or two. The plot really goes places and is genuinely exciting to see unfold, all the way to the end. And it even manages to sneak in an emotion or two.

Plus it’s got Marlene Dietrich being amazing–she is another one of these classic Hollywood legends that I have heard of but never really seen in anything before (kind of like the entire cast of Grand Hotel, which I mentioned last time).

But it’s the entire cast that is great–my wife and I were particular fans of Una O’Connor as the surly housemaid.

And all the bickering scenes between Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by Else Lanchester, are even funnier when you realize that they were married in real life.

See here for the Master List.

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