This classic continues to keep movie lovers riveted until the final, mesmerizing frame.
Agatha Christie's story Witness for the Prosecution boggled my mind in eighth grade English class. Such a nice string of simple, baffling plot twists, the story also inspired Christie's hit play well before I was born. A movie was inevitable, and none other than Billy Wilder was chosen to direct a cast of heavy hitters, including Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Tyrone Power, resulting in six Oscar nominations.
Facts of the Case
American expatriate-to-England Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of killing a lady friend who is much older and richer than he. His wife Christine Vole (Dietrich) seems very ambiguous about saving his butt in court, and this whole mess winds up in the lap of heart-attack prone barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton). The barrister is at the top of his game, but then again, he's dealing with the simple genius of Agatha Christie. Will Dietrich's seeming-scheming wife get the best of his case in court?
Laughton is often overlooked in musings on Witness for the Prosecution, which is a pity. His garrulous, charming, mischievous, and stupendously clever Sir Wilfrid anchors the movie. Childlike in his misbehavior, substituting brandy for cocoa at his nurse Miss Plimsoll's (Elsa Manchester) behest, and fighting a repeat heart attack at every turn, Laughton plays all facets of the barrister expertly.
Still, Marlene Dietrich's legs are something to contend with, and Tyrone Power's excessive and over-the-top outbursts in court bewilder. (They do have a payoff at the end.) Elsa Manchester's Miss Plimsoll leads the brigade of Sir Wilfrid's loyal assistants, and they too all play their roles with aplomb. Manchester was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts.
The real star in Witness for the Prosecution is the plot. Your emotional loyalty is firmly entrenched in the case for Leonard, and boy, you really want him to win. But there is something sinister within this convoluted case, and as the simple "facts" unfold moment by moment, you are led somewhere safe—then left hanging in the face of danger once again. We find out Ms Vole is doubly married—in two different countries. Mr. Vole led her to safety from her destroyed post-WWII homeland of Germany. Does she truly love him, enough to get him off the hook? Or will she be a disastrous witness for the prosecution?
Okay, you figured out the answer to that question judging by the flick's title, but perhaps Ms. Vole is motivated by love, or perhaps she's leaving Mr. Vole out to dry for yet another man. Not even the exceptional instincts of Sir Wilfrid can discern, and the conclusion will stun and delight you.
Sound cryptic? Well, I have to be. The voice over at the end of the credits told me not to tell anyone the ending! And I don't want Charles Laughton chasing me down for telling anyone! Wait…isn't he dead?
The film comes in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, perfect for presenting boxy lines of a crowded British courtroom. There's a good amount of dust and specks on the print, fine and tiny so that they're fairly unnoticeable, but the occasional green or violet tint of the print does show up quite a bit. However, the picture is super sharp. No obvious edge enhancement was present. The lines of this film are crisp, clear—you can see every mole, bead of sweat, divot in Charles Laughton's face. Uh, well maybe you don't want to—but kudos to great cinematography. A little more work on the quality of blacks and whites would have been nice.
Sound is just fine, nothing fancy here, but none necessary—Dolby Mono in English and French. The mix of noise is a little clumsy—some courtroom laughter at a witness' antics, for example, sound overly loud and pasted on—but again, the need for much calibration is minimal and rarely affects enjoyment of the film.
I could have used a mini-documentary on Agatha Christie, the film, or a combination of both, as this story was such a phenomenon. Unfortunately, we get no such luck. However, we do receive a long and even more cryptic trailer, with Laughton asking us to please not tell others the ending (hence my fear of his vengeful ghost upon relinquishing the final twist). The trailer is an entertaining bit of history, nice for any film buff to have on hand.
A true courtroom drama with twists, turns, and the portly Charles Laughton lending a hefty center of gravity to it all. Witness For The Prosecution is masterful on all levels: acting, direction, cinematography, and most importantly and long forgotten by current filmmakers: STORY.
A stunning courtroom victory for the preeminent courtroom drama, Witness for the Prosecution.
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