"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)