Witness for the Prosecution (US 1957)

French poster

Agatha Christie reportedly told Billy Wilder that this adaptation of her stage play (a success on Broadway in 1954) was the best adaptation of any of her works. The original short story had appeared in 1925 and has since been revised and re-worked many times: the play re-opens in London in a couple of weeks. After watching it on BBC4 (I don’t think I’d seen it previously) I decided that the film is very entertaining and beautifully directed and performed – but as a dramatic narrative it is simply tosh. On the other hand, audiences do love Christie’s narratives, or perhaps it simply that she creates interesting characters and twists and turns which produce puzzle structures? I’m not really a Christie fan but Wilder does intrigue me. There is an announcement at the end of the film urging the audience not to give away the ending. I suspect that most audience members will have worked out the twist well before it is revealed, but probably not all the following actions. I don’t usually like guessing the twist in narratives but in this case it is too obvious to ignore – but don’t worry, no spoilers here.

One of the joys of the film is the badinage between Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton

If you don’t know the premise of the story, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) has been questioned by Scotland Yard about the murder of a widow, Mrs French (Norma Varden) who he has been seeing regularly for several weeks, hoping to persuade her to invest in his domestic appliance inventions. Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) knows about these visits and can provide an alibi for her husband at the time when the murder is supposed to have taken place. Vole is brought to the chambers of the renowned barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) by his solicitor (John Williams). Roberts has just recovered from a heart attack and should be convalescing but he can’t resist taking the case much to the fury of his nurse (the incomparable Elsa Lanchester). Vole is duly arrested and the narrative unfolds partly through flashbacks to the first meeting of Leonard and Christine and his early visits to Mrs French and partly through statements by a limited number of witnesses at the Old Bailey. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming but what will Christine’s role in the proceedings be?

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is agitated as the man in the dock

The four leads are all excellent and Wilder sets up the scenes with great skill. I don’t remember a moment when I wasn’t engaged by the storytelling. But there are some distractions. Despite the London setting, the film appears to have been made primarily at MGM studios in Culver City (it was an independent production distributed by United Artists). The two major sets, the Central Criminal Court and Roberts’ chambers in Lincoln’s Inn were both constructed in Hollywood and British actors resident in the US were used in many of the secondary roles. Tyrone Power just before his tragic early death in 1958 doesn’t really make any attempt to appear ‘English’ and I did find this a distraction, partly because when he appeared in a flashback in an RAF uniform I was reminded of his starring role in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (US 1955) in which he plays an Irish immigrant to the US who becomes an instructor at West Point. Marlene Dietrich is cast as a German woman singing in a makeshift nightclub in Berlin in 1945 who Leonard ‘rescues’ and marries. This sequence in flashback is familiar from the various ‘rubble films’ of German cinema in the immediate post-war years.

Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood as a scriptwriter from German cinema in the mid 1930s. He started directing with a screenplay written by himself and Charles Brackett in 1942 for The Major and the Minor. With Witness for the Prosecution he worked on a screenplay with Harry Kurnitz based on the adaptation of Christie’s play by Larry Marcus. The twists and the detail in the narrative presumably came from Christie but Wilder would have had a hand in the dialogue and Laughton and Lanchester (husband and wife) could be relied on for a polished interpretation. The same goes for Dietrich and Power. I found the dialogue exchanges often exciting and very funny. If you want an entertaining film with players at the top of their game, this is a good choice. It’s in Black and White like most of Wilder’s films up to Irma la Douce in 1963. The photography is by Russell Harlan with art direction by Alexandre Trauner, both masters of their craft. Though it isn’t a film about visual splendour, they make the most of the sets. This may also be one of the earliest features to promote the stairlift as a device to ferry the ailing Roberts up to his bed from his office – though they seem to have been available in the US since the 1930s. Witness for the Prosecution is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 27 days.

John Williams as the solicitor, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton on the stairlift.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    This is a film classic. Its success would seem mainly due to Billy Wilder; Agatha Christie tends to be long on plots and short on character. But also what makes the film work so well is the characterisations by Laughton and Lanchester. This is one of the vehicles worthy of Laughton’s performance and he and Lanchester are perfect foils; as indeed they were at the beginning of their careers. Dietrich is great and Power is also good. And his role benefits from some of his earlier characterisations such as ‘Nightmare Alley’ (1947).
    I think the plot is better than tosh but it is not realism; that is for sure. The courtroom scenes are especially effective and the court proceedings are pretty accurate for a Hollywood treatment.
    I am currently reading a study of the filmography of Charles Laughton and it is interesting to place the title in his rather up-and-down career.
    I thought the transfer used was good.

    Liked by 1 person

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