Witness for the Prosecution

poster_witnessfortheprosecution

Witness for the Prosecution may not be the most deep or profound film, but it sure is entertaining. From the poster’s emphasis on the word “suspense” you may think this is an Alfred Hitchcock picture, but it’s actually directed by Billy Wilder, based on the play by Agatha Christie. It offers quite a bit of humor, lots of suspense, a good court room drama, and surprising twists and turns.

Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) is a prominent English barrister, forbidden to take any criminal cases, smoke cigars, or drink brandy while convalescing from a recent heart attack. Despite the protests of his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he endeavors to do all three. When a dimwitted but seemingly innocent inventor (Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power) caught in suspicious circumstances comes along, Wilfrid cannot help but take his case. The prosecution has very strong circumstantial evidence, plus a motive that Vole denies exists. The only thing Vole has is his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who says she will testify that Vole was at home during the time of the murder. Wilfrid doesn’t believe this will be enough, and Christine doesn’t seem entirely reliable. He refuses to put her on the stand, but in an unconventional move, the prosecution calls her instead.

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As I mentioned, there are a lot of twists and turns in this movie. Most of them are conveniently placed at the end, so I won’t be tempted to spoil them for you. I feel that this movie will still be enjoyable on repeat watches because of the humor, but it never will be as great as the first viewing, because now I know the ending. Most of it centers around, as the titles suggests, Christine. There is some debate as to whether she is a devoted wife or a conniving shrew, and as to whether she is legally married to Vole at all. The brilliant part is you can always sense she is holding something back. She changes her story and her demeanor more than once, but we’re onto her and so is Wildrid; even if we don’t know exactly what she’s up to, we know she’s up to something. That provides suspense and intrigue, and the twists and turns come at the end when everything is revealed.

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The characters, like the film, aren’t necessarily the deepest people out there, but they’re clearly drawn and one can’t help but be entertained by them. Christine and Voll are kept at a distance, coldly analyzed while being put on trial, but you get to know Sir Wilfrid more closely. The dynamic he has with the nurse is a bit stereotypical but it’s hilarious all the same. In fact, on most fronts this film isn’t really doing anything too innovating, but it’s done so well that I can forgive it that. Laughton in particular turns in a great performance as the worn out lawyer who can’t bring himself to quit; he brings sincerity to the ending scenes when he contemplates Christine’s character and hilarity to all the rest of them. Power seems to be overacting a bit but it fits in with the film. Dietrich is also very good as the remote and almost unreadable Mrs. Vole.

From what I remember Wilder’s not doing anything too fancy here, but he must have been doing something right because he turned out a wonderful film. It’s not going to make anyone think too hard, but it is wonderfully enjoyable and full of great performances. And yeah, the twists at the end are just remarkable.

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“Wilfrid the Fox! That’s what they call him, and that’s what he is!”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
The Best Picture Project review

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2 responses to “Witness for the Prosecution

  1. I think a big part of what makes this so good is that Wilder doesn’t do a lot of fancy stuff with his direction. He knew he had a good script and picked the best actors for the roles and then put them through their paces and more or less stayed out of their way. Laughton is great, he would have been my pick for best actor that year, and Marlene Dietrich matches his work in a tricky role. With this, Touch of Evil and Judgement at Nuremberg all in a row she should have been entering a peak period of performances but Nuremberg was the end of the line as far as her screen career went except for her small role 16 years later in Just a Gigolo. Puzzling.

    • Yeah I feel like you’re right, wilder steps back from the camera and just gets some fantastic performances from his actors that results in a really fun movie. I did enjoy Dietrich’s performance though, I need to seek out some more of her movies.

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