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I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Movie

Witness for the Prosecution
(1957)

 

Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”.

It isn’t an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.

Indeed, Wilder paid Christie the compliment that “For every five hundred great dialogue writers there are five great constructionists”, but Witness for the Prosecution relies on a highly unlikely piece of cosmetic embroidery to get Tyrone Power off the charge of murdering a rich widow (who just changed her will in his favour). The reveals from that point are suitably melodramatic: wife Marlene Dietrich admits Power did it; Power admits he did it; then pretty young thing Ruta Lee joins the now free Power, who tells Dietrich it’s hard cheese, and she stabs him with Exhibit A (the initial murder weapon). And then, defence counsel Charles Laughton begins arrangements to take on her case.

Before that, though, with things looking grim for Power due to Dietrich having taken the stand to dish dirt for the prosecution, she (unbeknownst to us) dons a disguise – looking peculiarly like Tony Curtis in drag, perhaps give the director ideas for his next film – and presents Laughton with letters written by wifey to a lover. The result: her testimony is not to be trusted and the jury finds Power not guilty.

My problem with this is that the rest of Witness for the Prosecution, for all the (frequently very funny) antics and exchanges involving Laughton, gives such far-fetched extravagance a wide berth; suddenly, we’re asked to swallow that clever old Laughton could be duped and that Dietrich (whether or not her character was an actress) could pull it off. Sherlock Holmes may indulge such trickery to have a bit of a laugh at Watson’s expense, but Witness for the Prosecution was hitherto operating with a little more verisimilitude.

There’s also the detail that, while it doesn’t matter too much if you’re invested in the fate of the accused since such stories invariably revolve around the brilliance of the defence counsel, it does help. Added to which, Power may deliver a decently overwrought plea of innocence, but there’s isn’t much traction to the idea of him as Dietrich’s younger husband; he looks about a decade old than he was (notably, this was his final completed film), while she’d recently had work done, and the black and white photography is very much on her side.

So the best of this version of Witness for the Prosecution resides squarely with Laughton, and much of his characterisation comes courtesy of embellishments on Wilder’s and co-writers Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz’ parts (there was no heart trouble, and no cognac or cigars in Christie’s play). It was “immensely improved” as Simon Callow put it. Recovering from a “teeny-weeny” heart attack and initially thwarted by private nurse Elsa Lanchester – Laughton’s wife; at this point both were leading their own separate personal lives – Laughton’s unable to resist the lure of a criminal case. And cigars: “You could be jailed for this. You had no search warrant for my cane” he exclaims, after Lanchester has emptied it of concealed stogies.

Furnished with marvellous dialogue and, as Callow observed, “a fantastic sense of cadence”, Laughton is frequently laugh-out-loud funny as he responds to Power fretting over the widow’s body just lying there in her living room (“I assure you, she’s been moved by now. To leave her around would be unfeeling, unlawful, and unsanitary”). Or barracks Lanchester (“If you were a woman, Miss Plimsole, I would strike you”). Or puts down Torin Thatcher’s Crown Prosecutor (“If he insists on answering his own questions, the presence of the witness would seem superfluous”). He also provides wonderful little bits of business, such as arranging his heart pills on his desk as he listens to the cross examinations.

Witness for the Prosecution isn’t a hugely satisfying murder mystery, then – Pauline Kael gave it a pass as “inane yet moderately entertaining” – but it’s a first-rate case of an iconic lawyer character, superbly performed. Laughton and Lanchester rightly received Oscar nominations for their work (Alec Guinness won Best Actor, and you can’t really argue with the lion’s share of the statuettes going to The Bridge on the River Kwai). Even in the legal drama stakes that year, Witness for the Prosecution was thoroughly outclassed by the taught, sweaty fellow Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men, which really makes the former look quite antiquated in comparison (there are thirty years between their respective source materials).

Witness for the Prosecution received six Oscar nominations, including Best Director, but it’s difficult to make a case that it deserved consideration for the top award, or even that it’s a prime example of Christie’s talent for construction. It is, however, a glittering showcase for Laughton, who only half a decade before had been reduced to guesting in an Abbott and Costello movie.

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