Judge Jason Panella once witnessed a man throw a potato at a seagull.
Our review of Witness For The Prosecution, published December 6th, 2001, is also available.
Unmatched…in a half century of motion picture suspense!
"Be prepared for hysterics and even a fainting spell."
Facts of the Case
A wealthy English widow has been murdered. American expat Leonard Vale (Tyrone Power, The Mark of Zorro) has been accused of the crime and doesn't have much of an alibi, though genius barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) thinks the man is innocent. The case rests on the testimony of Vale's miffed wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich, Judgment at Nuremberg), but which side is she going to help?
There's a verbal warning during Witness for the Prosecution's closing credits that politely asks the audience not to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn't seen the film. It's a neat artifact, especially when viewed in an era when spoiling a movie is one of the worse social crimes imaginable. It also shows that the movie's marketing staked everything on its twists, which are good. Witness for the Prosecution still holds up not because of any unexpected plot element, but because of two names: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder.
Witness for the Prosecution is based on the Queen of Crime's short story (and subsequent play) of the same name. The film was co-written (with Harry Kurnitz, A Shot in the Dark) and directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity). Admittedly, I'm much more a fan of Wilder than Christie, though I think Christie's reputation is certainly deserved. The two marvelously balance each other out in this picture—Wilder adds a few lumps of his usual nasty wit to the story while tightening some aspects, and the heart of Christie's story cuts down Wilder's cynical tendencies significantly. The result is a fantastic Wilder film, considered by many to be one of the finest Agatha Christie adaptations.
The film doesn't stray from its origins as a stage production—aside from some vague locations visited in flashback, the story unfolds in two static locations. The bulk of the action happens in a wonderful recreation of London's Central Criminal Court, "Old Bailey" to most. Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama through and through; while I often find these sorts of pictures tedious, this story zips by. The writing is top notch, of course, with Wilder peppering the dialogue with wonderful bits of sly humor. Power and Dietrich are great in their roles, but the real standout is Laughton. Wilfrid is in a perpetual state of grouchiness; in Wilder's hands, this is comedic perfection, especially when Laughton crosses verbal swords with the nurse played by his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester (Mary Poppins).
Kino Lorber's release of Witness for the Prosecution (Blu-ray) features a good 1.66:1/1080p widescreen HD transfer. The level of detail is sharp, with the picture looking specifically clear in close-up shots. The natural film grain looks good, as do the black levels. I did notice the level of detail drop several times, mostly between certain cuts; this never lasted longer than a second or two, thankfully. The mono DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is very clear, a good thing for such a dialogue-heavy film. That said, there are a few points where overlapping conversations are hard to pick out, and this Blu-ray's lack of any subtitle options sticks out like a sore thumb. Kino Lorber also dropped this release with some measly extras. The brief archival interview with Billy Wilder (6:31) is fun, especially since he seems to go out of his way to switch between German, French, and English, but it's short. There's also the original theatrical trailer (3:07), and that's it.
Note: The review copy we received only loaded on my Blu-ray player after six or seven tries. From that point on it worked well, but the defect is worth mentioning.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But what about that twist? I won't ruin it, but I think many viewers will see it coming a mile away. It works sublimely in the context of the film, and I was so wrapped up in Wilder's magic I didn't see it coming.
Witness for the Prosecution is a fine film, and Kino Lorber does a nice job with its high definition treatment. Even with the absence of any meaty extras, it's worth checking out.
Not guilty…or is it?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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