Witness for the Prosecution _1957_ Witness for the Prosecution_ by by wulinqing


									Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution,
by Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

Perhaps the best Agatha Christie 'whodunit' adapted to the screen, Witness for the Prosecution shows us Billy
Wilder at his entertaining best, in the years before he settled down into light romantic comedies. It's so tightly
constructed, it at first seems to bear little relation to his other work, like, perhaps The Spirit of St. Louis. But
after taking in the film's half-dozen perfectly written and acted characterizations, the picture finds its place in
Wilder's line of post-war German reconstruction pictures, as if Germany's collective crime had spilled over into
an English courtroom melodrama.

                                            Synopsis (no spoilers):
Ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) takes on a case, much to the consternation of his nurse
Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of the murder of Emily
French (Norma Varden), an older woman he was seeing. Sir Wilfrid has an uphill struggle on his hands.
Although a reasonably honest-looking man, Vole does seem to have some moral lapses, behaving like a gigolo.
And what's Sir Wilfrid to make of his War Bride wife, the mysterious Christine Helm Vole (Marlene Dietrich)?

Let me say first off that this review won't reveal any major plot points or spoil Witness for the Prosecution.
There's actually not that much to review. Instead of twisting the source material into his kind of comedy, Wilder
has done the kind of flatteringly faithful adaptation he applied to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes years
later. Yes, it's flavored with Wilderisms, but the tone and basic thrills are from the source: lying witnesses,
obsessed investigators, surprise revelations, and dizzying character turns.

These where the years between Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, when Wilder worked with an ever-
changing succession of writing partners. Maybe his domineering nature frustrated them, but the movies didn't
suffer. Witness for the Prosecution was a huge success just when he needed it, and convinced Hollywood that
Wilder hadn't lost his touch.
It all works like an oiled watch, better than many of Wilder's later pictures. Each character has just enough
space to shine, with married couple Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester given perfect co-starring parts.
Tyrone Power's aging good looks and protests of innocence make him a doubtful hero. Marlene Dietrich gets
her last great role, a gift from Wilder for playing a character she hated ten years earlier, a Nazi opportunist in A
Foreign Affair.

Laughton and his courtroom helpers figure out complex defense strategies while the cagey barrister sneaks
cigars. Laughton and his glum solicitor Henry Daniell race about like Sherlock and Watson to collect last-
minute evidence. The drama makes use of flashbacks, a Wilder rarity. All the threads converge in proper
Agatha Christie style on a few crucial hours in the courtroom, with Laughton encouraged to pull out the stops:
"Are you not a CHRONIC AND HABITUAL LIAR???!!"

Wilder handles the smaller parts with a finesse that Alfred Hitchcock rarely touched. Actors known in
Hitchcock roles, Norma Varden and John Williams, are terrific here without being caricatured.

Wilder once again finds the evil for Witness for the Prosecution in decaying post-war Germany. Marlene
Dietrich is no ex-consort of Adolph Hitler, as she was in A Foreign Affair; that comedy is almost too
sophisticated in its observance that human beings thrive in all moral climates, and aren't necessarily to be
condemned for it. Dietrich's mantrap opportunist means nobody harm, but is too conditioned to survival to be
swayed by anything as abstract as Love.

Prosecution's Christine Helm starts off in the same place as A Foreign Affair, with Dietrich again a chanteuse
who successfully attaches herself to a foreigner to escape the ruins of Berlin. This time it's different, though. I'm
restrained from explaining her further, but Billy Wilder again makes Dietrich the film's most complicated
character, one that defeats classification as simply Good or Bad. Wilder remained ambivalent and adult about
such issues, and the richness he brings to Witness for the Prosecution just makes Agatha Christie look that
much more accomplished. It was nominated six times but won no Oscars; Wilder's drawing-room cleverness
couldn't outshine the grandeur of David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai.

Tyrone Power is also another one of Wilder's gigolo characters, men who deceitfully play along with older
women and live to regret it, as in Sunset Blvd. Wilder denied it, but more than one biographer has used Wilder's
experience as a Berlin eintanzer, sort of a dime-a-dance boy, to make thematic connections between his movies
and his life.
Billy Wilder Takes Agatha Christie to Court
David Abrams CulutreCartel.com 02/01/2007

If ever there was a torrential force of energy on the silver screen, Charles Laughton was it in 1957's Witness for
the Prosecution. The portly, pudgy British actor moves like a drop of water on a hot skillet, dominating every
scene he's in (and he's in a vast majority of the scenes in this movie) as he gives us the royal version of the
smart-alecky, throw-away-the-rulebook lawyer. Tune in to any contemporary TV legal show and you'll see at
least one cast member mimicking—either consciously or subconsciously—Laughton's performance as Sir
Wilfrid Robarts, legal counsel for Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an American in London who's been accused
of murdering elderly Mrs. French.

The movie—nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture—is based on Agatha Christie's 1948 play and
was directed by Billy Wilder, himself a legendary powerhouse of energy behind the camera. Witness for the
Prosecution came midway in Wilder's career. He'd already directed such cinema greats as Double Indemnity,
Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and The Seven Year Itch. Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and The Fortune
Cookie were yet to come. Audiences knew what to expect when they sat down in the theater and the credits
rolled on a Wilder film: smart, snappy dialogue that cascaded along without waiting for the audience's ears to
catch up; biting, satirical stories that made no apologies for their harsh view of the world; and actors who
grabbed their characters with both hands and slipped them on like a suit of skin. If a Wilder movie didn't blow
your hair back, then you were either bald or dead.

On the surface, Witness for the Prosecution is an oddity in the Wilder filmography because the pace of the story
is generally slower and moves from Point A to Point B to Point C with measured exactness. There's nothing
wild or frantic about this story, but that doesn't mean it lacks the director's trademark energy. Witness for the
Prosecution draws its vibrancy and tension from the performances and from Christie's surprising twists.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a world-famous barrister who is lauded as "the
champion of the hopeless cause." He's suffered a major heart attack and is now being bundled home from the
hospital by his fussy, clucking nurse Miss Plimsoll, played by Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife in real life
("Teeny weeny flight of steps, Sir Wilfrid, we mustn't forget we've had a teeny weeny heart attack"). The
interplay between the two is hilarious and sets the tone for the rest of the movie as we learn that Sir Wilfrid is
not a man who allows himself to be bullied around…at least, not without a grimace and a grumble.

Laughton carries the film with his performance. His energy is like a dynamic tornado in every scene—even
when he's sitting still at his desk in the courtroom at the Old Bailey. Small things compel you to watch him—for
instance, the way he swipes at his monocle as if it was a fly on his nose.

When accused murderer Leonard Vole shows up on his doorstep, Wilfrid takes the tough case against the advice
of his doctors, and to Miss Plimsoll's shock and agitation. Vole swears he is innocent, even though the evidence
points toward his guilt. As one character notes, Leonard "has one foot on the gallows and one foot on a banana
peel." To complicate matters, he has no alibi except his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich).

Dietrich plays the part with heavy-lidded eyes, breathy German chanteuse sensuality, and self-focused
haughtiness. She practically demands that the camera make love to her (even though it wants to spend more
time with the magnetic Laughton). Dietrich does have an entrance that rates among the most memorable in film
history. When discussing how he expects the poor Mrs. Vole to give her testimony in court, Laughton had been
telling his colleagues to "be prepared for hysterics and even a fainting spell—better have smelling salts handy
and a nip of brandy." Suddenly, from the doorway, comes this low, sexual purr, "I do not think that will be
necessary. I never faint because I am not sure that I will fall gracefully and I never use smelling salts because
they puff up the eyes. I am Christine Vole." No, actually she's Marlene Dietrich standing there with her
legendary icy resolve.
Only Christine can persuade a jury that her husband was not in Mrs. French's flat at the time of the murder.
Unfortunately, she comes across as a cold, calculating femme fatale who may or may not love her husband. She
makes Sir Wilfrid nervous because he can't predict which way her testimony will go—for or against Leonard?

The "surprise" ending might come as no surprise to viewers who will most likely figure it out before the jury
reaches its verdict. That would probably disappoint Agatha Christie, God rest her soul, who delighted in fooling
us until the very last page.

On the other hand, some viewers might not see the twist until it's upon them, thanks to Wilder's deft handling of
pace and dialogue. In true Christie fashion, the director and his stars keep the action spinning right along—so
fast that viewers are distracted by what's about to leap up

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