Thursday, June 24, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

"If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you."

After making a film as perfect as Sunset Blvd. in 1950, many directors would have found themselves on that inevitable downward slide, forever trying to match the greatness of their earlier masterpiece. Not so with Billy Wilder. Not only did he continue to make such remarkable films as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, but in 1957 he nearly equaled his 1950 achievement with a movie that has stood the test of time like few others: Witness for the Prosecution.

I first came into contact with this film thanks to a high school social sciences class which required us to watch it. Imagine a roomful of rowdy teenage boys (ah, Catholic school), sarcastically skeptical that this movie had anything to offer them, only to find themselves entranced by the drama and laughing at the comedy within minutes. This movie is entertainment at its most fascinating, a brilliantly acted, unflaggingly witty whodunit that just may be the finest courtroom drama of them all.

Years later, I had the pleasure of seeing Witness for the Prosecution on the big screen, presented by none other than Gene Wilder (no relation), who cited the film as one of his favorites, and one of his greatest influences. It might seem odd that a comic writer and actor would be so inspired by a courtroom potboiler, but this film is so much more than that.

Based on an original play by the queen of parlor mystery herself, Agatha Christie, the story was expertly adapted by early TV writer Larry Marcus, with the aid of Wilder and successful playwright/screenwriter Harry Kurnitz into a taut, brilliant script that alternates deftly between suspense and intrigue on the one hand, and whimsical comedy and wordplay on the other. It's quite an achievement, made even more impressive, as all movies are, when viewed in its proper setting.

Charles Laughton is magnificent as the stodgy-yet-irreverent Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the celebrated attorney who takes on the case of a young man, played by consummate movie star Tyrone Power, accused of murdering a rich, middle-aged widow. The plot thickens when his war bride, played by the devastatingly sultry Marlene Dietrich, is called as, you guessed it, a witness for the prosecution. But even that is grossly oversimplifying things--this movie is packed with twists and turns that need to be seen to be appreciated. And even though some of them may have become trite or cliche with the passage of time, they're done with such style that it doesn't matter.

Laughton's razor-sharp back-and-forth dialogue with real-life wife Elsa Lanchester, who plays his nurse, is nothing short of amazing (as an aside, I always found it amusing that the Hunchback of Notre Dame married the Bride of Frankenstein...) You see, Sir Wilfrid has recently suffered a heart attack, and isn't even supposed to be taking on such grave cases due to his health. It's his nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who is charged with the thankless task of keeping him healthy, which means doing none of the things he enjoys, ie. drinking, smoking and taking on murder cases.

As much as this is a courtroom drama, and a very effective one at that, I can't stress enough how it's comic elements are just as entertaining, thanks in large part to the obvious chemistry between Laughton and Lanchester. Dietrich is movie magic as always, a figure of towering charisma who doesn't even have to speak to steal a scene. Power can't be blamed for being no more than a good-looking prop, as his character is merely a device to set the other characters in motion around him. His arc pays off big-time in the film's big "gotcha" ending--which I won't spoil here for those who have yet to experience it.

Over the years, and even in its own time, people have mistaken Witness for the Prosection for an Alfred Hitchcock film, which is truly a testament to the effortless manner in which Wilder takes to the material, even mixing suspense and comedy just as effectively as Hitch himself did so many times. This was probably the "heaviest" film Wilder had taken since Sunset Blvd., and it really says so much about his chameleon-like quality--so common in Hollywood directors of the golden age--that he was able to seamlessly transition from stuff like The Seven-Year Itch, to a movie like this.

By the time this movie came out, the courtroom drama was already a tried-and-true staple of motion pictures, and yet Witness for the Prosecution added so much to the genre, and set the standard for many more films to come. This can be attributed in equal parts to Christie, giant of the mystery milieu that she was; Wilder, the man who made it work so well without seeming like a "filmed play"; and the supreme efforts of a brilliant cast, highlighted by Laughton, one of the true craftsmen of his time.

In a sense, Laughton was ahead of his time--a character actor able to headline a film. Nobody bats an eye nowadays to see guys like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson--who are essentially character actors--headlining their own movies, but in the age of the handsome leading man, it was far more unusual. Only Laughton, one of the most underrated film actors who ever lived, could have pulled off Quasimodo, Capt. Bligh and Sir Wilfrid Robarts. And despite the presence of Power in Witness for the Prosecution, there is never any doubt that this is Laughton's movie. His performance truly makes this one of cinema's most satisfying experiences.

NEXT UP: Psycho (1960)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: 12 Angry Men (1957)

"Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?"

There are many great ensemble dramas in the history of film. And then there is the great ensemble drama, which may very well be Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Adapted from a TV movie, this superb motion picture collects some of the finest actors of their own and any other generation, puts them in a room together for an hour and a half, and the result is absolute gold.

Let's have a look at the unbelievable assemblage of talent on display here. The gruff and cynical Jack Warden; the beguiling and childlike John Fiedler; the menacing and pompous Lee J. Cobb; the very young and unassuming Jack Klugman; the understated yet riveting Ed Begley; the regal and commanding E.G. Marshall. And of course, the beloved everyman himself, Henry Fonda as the central figure on the jury. And that's not even covering all 12 of the angry men!

To call this a dream cast would be the understatement of the century. This is the kind of a cast a director would kill to have working for him--a room full of unparalleled pros who take the already excellent material written by Manhattanite wordsmith Reginald Rose, and weave it into a tapestry of such sublime interaction, that the viewer is caught up in every nuance of the 90-minute conversation, from beginning to end.

How ironic that such an impeccable gathering of gifted actors would be brought together for first-time film director Sidney Lumet. Up to that point strictly a TV guy, Lumet was a hot young prospect at the time, and the homerun he hit out of the park with this Oscar nominee opened the door to an illustrious career that included such pictures as Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, A Stranger Among Us, and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.

Here, the 32-year-old auteur certainly has an advantage in a cast of gentlemen who could not give a bad performance if their lives depended on it. Naturally, it would be unfair to say that even a lesser director could've pulled off a classic given the material and the participants. Lumet was responsible for bringing it all together into a coherent whole, and he does so with the masterful confidence of a veteran, flawlessly staging the nearly claustrophobic goings-on with the help of Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman, ratcheting up the tension higher and higher with the skill of an orchestra conductor.

12 Angry Men was a standout film in a sweeping sub-genre of "message" movies that Hollywood cranked out during the post-war '50s, somewhat liberal-minded pieces (which no doubt rankled the McCarthyites running roughshod with their red-baiting antics at the time) that fed into America's genuine desire to behave as the high-minded purveyor of principle its citizens considered it to be. And while this may not have always realistically been the case, it was an ideal that was genuinely striven for, and films such as Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind and 12 Angry Men are prime examples of its expression in film.

This is a film about ideas, that isn't afraid to hash them out in depth and with very little in the way of "action". The action here is in the dialogue, in the interplay of the characters, and in the development of their differing opinions over the course of the plot. It's a very thoughtful film, but manages to engage viewers of each ensuing generation, continuing to be amongst the most popular of all "pre-modern" motion pictures, owing most likely to the intensity and authenticity of the performances.

Fonda's wide-eyed innocence is here put to its best use since his younger days in films like The Grapes of Wrath. He is the film's moral center, the one we're supposed to identify with. The film revolves around his own moral journey, his search for the truth amidst a room of fellow human beings who range from tentatively fair-minded, to apathetic, to downright hostile.

In opposition to him is the bigoted, loud-mouthed Cobb, at his very best here playing the part of a man whom we may vehemently disagree with, whom we may see for the dangerous ignoramus he is, yet whom we still identify with as a human being. Most importantly, he is still written and acted as a whole person with motivations and ideas, and not just a cartoon character. This is a testament to the greatness of 12 Angry Men.

To do justice to the rest of the performances would take a series of posts like this one. Suffice it to say that each man in that room distinguishes himself at one point or another in the film--whether it be a handful of key moments, or a consistent presence throughout the film. Whether it be Warden's flippant comic relief, Fiedler's earnestness, or the meek charm of George Voskovec, there is so much here to be thoroughly enjoyed.

12 Angry Men is a movie about truth, and about the natural instinct of people to seek it out, within themselves and others. It's a movie about justice, and whether or not it can exist within the American legal system. It's a film that's high-minded without being heavy-handed, and packed with drama despite the fact that its characters never leave the deliberation room. They say that small people talk about people, average people talk about things, and great people talk about ideas. The same can be said of movies. And 12 Angry Men is one of the latter.

NEXT UP: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

One of those Good News, Bad News Situations

Bad: Getting a call from your apartment complex that your apartment might be flooded.

Good: Finding out that it's just a little bit of water leakage (and you don't have carpeting anyway).

Bad: The most significant damage is to your Creature from the Black Lagoon mini-poster, which is probably the first monster movie memorabilia you bought with your own money.

Amusing as Hell: The damage is that the plastic casing has filled with water, so the Gillman looks like he really is swimming (and oddly enough, the poster hasn't fallen off the wall).