ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Leonard Vole: guilty or innocent?
This courtroom drama is adapted from Agatha Christie’s stage play of the same name. It features Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Roberts, a brilliant London barrister who is recovering from a lengthy coma. He is looked after by the doting, patronising Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) who insists on restricting him to a diet free of alcohol and cigars, and with a workload limited to boring civil suits. However, just as he is about to settle into a more sedate life than he is used to, a desperate American ex-GI-turned-inventor named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) suddenly arrives in his office on the word of mouth that he will be able to help him in a seemingly hopeless case.
While, on medical advice, Sir Wilfrid initially refuses to take his request up, he recommends Vole to another barrister named Brogan-Moore (John Williams) and decides to take the opportunity to listen to his story anyway. When the latter arrives in the office, Vole tells the pair of them about how he befriended an elderly, wealthy woman named Mrs. Emily Jane French (Norma Varden) and visited her a number of times with the intention of persuading her to fund one of his latest patents. Recently, however, she has wound up dead on her living room floor, leaving Vole as the prime suspect. The sole witness who can testify to his alibi is his own wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a former German barroom singer who married him to emigrate out of the country during WWII. Since courts are typically skeptical about the notion of a wife being a reliable witness, he needs a strong defence. Moreover, Christine herself has a secret up her sleeve which she divulges to Sir Wilfrid, despite the fact that she has never mentioned it to her own husband.
At the last moment, the great barrister frustrates Miss Plimsoll by deciding to take on this immensely challenging case himself. Will his health hold up as he battles to convince the jury of Vole’s innocence in the face of tough prosecutor Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher)?
Watch a trailer:
Witness for the Prosecution is highly regarded both for being a Billy Wilder classic and for being one of the best Agatha Christie adaptations ever made. It works so well largely for two reasons: a witty, intelligent adapted script and memorable performances from a first-rate cast.
Not that Billy Wilder’s input as director is entirely lacking here. He does a fine job of ratcheting up the courtroom tension and, while the film’s stage-bound origins do show at times, he generally succeeds in making the results feel sufficiently cinematic via some deftly-handled flashbacks and the inventive use made of the light reflecting off Sir Wilfrid’s monocle at a couple of points. By and large, however, he lets the sharp and hilarious funny dialogue, the interplay between the performers and a slew of shocking climactic revelations provide the bounty of entertainment in store for the audience.
While the rotund Charles Laughton is only third-billed in the cast list, he’s the film’s true star. He doesn’t so much chew the scenery as gulp it down in delight, delivering each great line with a knowing, boisterously royal authority. He blends sympathy, haughtiness, intimidating authority and restless passion in one larger-than-life package. His effortless command of each scene is not only dialogue-based but also highly physical. A classic moment involves him experimenting with a chairlift in the manner of an excitable child. Elsa Lanchester, however, occasionally comes very close to stealing the show as Miss Plimsoll, his henpecking, prim-and-proper nurse. The interplay between herself and Laughton (her real-life husband) provides the film with its funniest moments.
Miss Plimsoll: I almost married a lawyer once. I was in attendance when he had his appendectomy, and we became engaged as soon as he could sit up... and then peritonitis set in and he went just like that!
Sir Wilfrid: He certainly was a lucky lawyer!
Top-billed Tyrone Power (in his last role before his death) is largely sidelined during the court scenes. Nonetheless, his usual classic movie star charm is allowed to shine through at certain key moments, particularly during the flashbacks. Marlene Dietrich, however, is more memorable as his cool, poised and somewhat calculating German wife. It soon becomes obvious that she has something to hide - but what, exactly? Her centrepiece cabaret routine during the barroom flashback is a highlight here, featuring a touch of the actress’s trademark androgyny in her attire.
Witness for the Prosecution is great, unpretentious classic Hollywood filmmaking which remains gripping and effortlessly enjoyable from start to finish.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Billy Wilder
Script: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, Lawrence B. Marcus, based on a stage play by Agatha Christie
Starring: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Henry Daniell, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher, Norma Varden
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Apart from one moment where I spotted the brief intrusion of a vertical line on the picture, it’s a very pleasing audio-visual restoration.
Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
Diabolique Magazine editor Ellinger lends an enthusiastic commentary track here. She discusses the changes Wilder made to Agatha Christie’s story; the comedic dialogue, Sir Wilfrid’s medical condition and the character of Miss Plimsoll were his own additions. Interestingly, Wilder’s additions were replicated in one of the later adaptations of the story which was released for television transmission in 1982. While Wilder felt that Christie was better at writing plot constructions than she was at the nuances of human interactions, his changes were also undoubtedly inspired by the chemistry that Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester shared as a longtime married couple (although, as an aside, Laughton was actually a closeted homosexual).
Ellinger also goes into the history of Wilder’s relationship with Dietrich. They knew each other from the 1920s Berlin artistic scene and were both involved in contributing to a fund to help get Jewish creatives out of Nazi Germany. Despite her striking appearance in this film, she was actually a grandmother in her 50s at the time. She apparently disliked certain aspects of the film, including the expensive-looking suit which Tyrone Power’s character wears to the trail - a touch which she felt was unconvincing since he was supposed to be an impoverished man seeking a wealthy woman’s money.
The film was made during a period when Wilder was amid a transition between his contributions to film noir era and his lighter, more comedic output from the latter half of the 1950s onwards. It contains a number of typical Wilder tropes, including that of a male protagonist compromised by circumstances and that of a younger man being “kept” by an older woman (a premise explored more extensively in Sunset Boulevard). It also features the “wrong man” trope which was previously popularised by Hitchcock.
Monocles and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton
Actor Callow fondly gives us an affectionate tribute to Witness for the Prosecution and Laughton himself. He mentions that the period when this film was made was particularly important for the legendary actor. Firstly, he diversified his talents into directing via the excellent Night of the Hunter (regrettably, the only film which he ever helmed) and several Broadway stage productions. Secondly, he was more freely able to conduct relationships with young men, particularly a certain Terry Jenkins who would become the love of his life. The film also marked the first time in many years when Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester worked together. Their relationship had amassed a lot of friction over time due to his sexual orientation.
Interview with Neil Sinyard
The Professor of Film Studies at Hull University takes a look at the film and points out a few subtle details which you may have missed the significance of on first viewing (I certainly did). He also quotes a couple of Wilder’s collaborators on their thoughts about the writer-director. Co-writer Harry Kurnitz once said that “Billy Wilder working is two people: Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde”. Dietrich, meanwhile, has stated that he is one of two great directors which she has worked with - the other being Josef von Sternberg.
Billy Wilder on Witness for the Prosecution
This is a snippet from a German TV programme called Billy, How Did You Do It? where he is interviewed by director Volker Schlöndorff. Wilder mentions that he was drawn to adapting Agatha Christie because, for every hundred great dialogue writers, there are five great constructionists - and Christie falls into the latter category. He also discusses his relationship with actress Marlene Dietrich, pointing out that she knew a lot about key lighting from her work with Josef von Sternberg..
The extras are completed with a theatrical trailer, collector’s booklet and reversible sleeve.
As courtroom dramas go, this one definitely stands right up there with the best. It’s grand, superbly acted entertainment, solidly packaged with a good range of extras.