October 8, 2015
Witness for the Prosecution – US, 1957
Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is a smart film replete with interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and absolutely wonderful moments. It is also a procedural, and, as such, its structure is pretty well known. We know there will be an accused who asserts his innocence, a decent lawyer who takes his case, and long court proceedings, in which the accused’s lawyer steadfastly refuses to give in even as it looks increasingly bad for his client. Moviegoers have seen this kind of film before, yet rarely have they seen it done so well.
The film starts off by introducing us to one of the more memorable Hollywood lawyers that has ever graced the screen, Sir Wilfrid, superbly played by Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty). Laughton has the necessary size and gravity to play Sir Wilfrid, a character we learn who has just gotten out of the hospital after a debilitating heart attack that doctors have said was the result of the strain of his profession. With him is his trusted nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), a woman whose medical advice is so counter to Wilfrid’s own desires that he remarks that he was much happier in a coma. Their scenes together crackle with sarcasm and wit, and I quite enjoyed their ongoing battle of wills.
On Wilfrid's first day back at work, he is approached to represent Mr. Leonard Vole, a struggling World War II veteran with nary a pound to his name. Wilfrid soon learns that Vole is accused of killing a fifty-eight year old widow, played memorably in flashbacks by Norma Varden. For his part, Vole admits knowing her, but says that his purpose was to secure backing for an invention he has come up with – a one-of-a-kind egg beater that somehow separates the white and the yolk. He insists he did not kill her. Well, of course he does. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if he said the opposite.
Marlene Dietrich plays Vole’s wife, Christine, and it is upon her introduction that the film, as interesting as it already is, really kicks it up a notch. Just before her entrance, Wilfrid cautions his associate about her possible reaction and throws out a series of cinematic clichés regarding the ability of wives to handle shocking news and the need for smelling salts. Dietrich turns the table on them by displaying behavior not normally associated with a woman convinced of her husband’s innocence. When asked if her husband had been home at the time of the murder, she simply replies that if that is what her husband has said happened, that is what she will say in court. It’s so off-putting that Wilfrid makes the decision not to put her on the stand.
There are the inevitable legal twists and turns, yet none that seemed superfluous or just too convenient. Wilder make use of flashback as a way of establishing characters and their pasts, yet does not use them later in the film – not even during testimony. He and writer Agatha Christie apparently trust that the film’s tense courtroom scenes will be enough to sustain the audience’s interest and keep them on the edge of their seats. They were wise to do so. However, there is another reason that I suspect Christie chose not to rely too heavily on flashbacks. The flashbacks we do see are all from the perspective of one character, and as the film progresses, the audience is forced to consider whether this character is trustworthy. This forces the audience to return to the “facts” that they discovered earlier through the flashbacks and to ask themselves if those moments were really as innocent and idealistic as they were described to us. In one of them, we learn how Vole and Christine met, and as I watched it, I remarked to myself that it all seemed to be happening at breakneck speed, which is entirely understandable for characters in a country recovering from war and loss. In fact, their meeting seemed practically predestined. However, as the film went by, I found myself returning to that scene and wondering if it had also been too ideal, as if someone had been laying it on a little too thick, and if that is indeed the case, I couldn’t help wondering just whose words the audience should take with a grain of salt.
Just before the film’s closing credits begin, the audience is urged not to divulge what happens in the film’s final act. Fair enough. I walked into the film without knowing anything about it, and part of my enjoyment was the direct result of this. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it less if I had known its secrets beforehand. At the very least, I would have watched it in a different way.
The film is well acted from start to finish. Laughton as usual is impeccable, wonderfully capturing the weight and levity of his character, while never allowing the audience to lose sight of the physical toll the case is having on him. Dietrich is an enigma throughout the film, keeping the audience away from her character, only later to draw them in, and Tyrone Powers is perfect as Vole. His performance while on the stand is why many defense lawyers would rather not let their clients testify, for up there pleas of innocence can sound an awful lot like admissions of guilt. Guiding them all the way is the master Billy Wilder, who takes the elements of a legal procedural and uses them to create an extraordinary amount of suspense and drama. Rarely has a cinematic courtroom looked this compelling. All of this makes Witness for the Prosecution a film to cherish. (on DVD and Blu-ray)