As an exercise in delicately concocted stagecraft, owing to the métier of celebrated mystery writer, Agatha Christie and her singularly plotted courtroom melodrama of the same name, director, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) proves an appetizing plat du jour for the movie screen; imbued with all the good taste, elegance, humor and big-time star power of a grandly amusing war horse trundled out for the umpteenth time, yet remarkably resilient despite its abject familiarity. Whether kudos belong to Wilder, for this exemplar of evenly paced drama and suspense, or to the vitriolic histrionics of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester (marrieds in real life) cast herein as the antagonistically delicious barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robart and his obsessively devoted nurse, Miss Plimsoll), the results are a first-rate, adroit and compelling slice of the procedural ‘who done it’ permeated with all the sublime trappings producers, Arthur Hornblower and Edward Small can muster.
Agatha Christie’s art is decidedly to be found in her prose; the ingeniousness of her razor wit and clever repartee between characters. This translates exceedingly well to the stage where transitions between scenes are minimal or, rather, usually done with limited alterations to the backdrops. Movies, however, are expected to…well…move. Thus, in assuming a highly literal translation of Christie’s distinguished and long-running masterpiece, Wilder and his co-writer, Harry Kurnitz have assumed a monumental and fairly daunting task; to maintain the integrity of that original art, while offering audiences something more visually compelling in its stead. Miraculously, the trick is carried off to almost perfection; Wilder giving us a consummate paraphrase to equally satisfy the popcorn muncher and the purist who’ve come to experience Agatha Christie in all her glory.
The biggest selling feature to the movie is its cast; the aforementioned Laughton headlining a roster of superior talents; Tyrone Power, in his last screen appearance as the devious and enterprising, Leonard Vole; Marlene Dietrich, ravishingly seductive as his retired cabaret-singer/wife, Christine; Henry Daniell, at long last removed from chronically playing the ruthless usurper, herein made over as the sympathetic attorney, Mayhew; John Williams, as Laughton’s right hand, Brogan-Moore, and Norma Varden and Una O’Connor, respectively playing the victim of the crime, Mrs. Emily Jane French and her proficient and nattering housemaid, Janet. Witness for the Prosecution would be nothing without these iconic character actors bringing their very best to each and every moment of the script. The stars, as well as the Wilder/Kurnitz screenplay vacillate in Agatha Christie’s rich tapestry of dialogue; these finely wrought exchanges crackling with considerable potency.
The joy to be had derives from the fact none of it seems to drag; not even Wilder’s insertion of two flashbacks – neither indigenous to Christie’s short story nor the play – but wholly concocted for the movie, simply to afford Dietrich an opportunity to show off her celebrated legs. There is, of course, much praise to be lavished on this sort of awe-inspiring star quality. It commands our attention with an almost hypnotic assurance; the stars knowing they’re damn well worth every penny and giving us their finest in a production worthy of their Tiffany-like setting. Better still, Wilder’s even-keeled pace to the material ensures there is never a monotonous or insignificant moment in the entire movie.
Again, the moon-faced and jowly Charles Laughton is the real star of this program; an old ham who infuses his Sir Wilfrid with a rich and varied veneer of admirable character traits, attesting to his own time-honored abilities as a refined and intense thespian. When Laughton speaks his intonations are expertly placed. He knows exactly where to punctuate his dialogue; at just the right moment where such bravura is required, and, precisely the instances when to hold back and afford the other actors, basking in his glory, their respective moments to take hold of the bar he has already set – elevating the caliber of everyone’s work to such dizzying heights. Laughton was Oscar-nominated for his performance. Almost forgivably, he lost out to Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai.
In Laughton’s wake there are many in competition for the afterglow of limelight, though remarkably, virtually no casualties amongst the principle cast; everyone managing to reach their own personal best. In retrospect, it is Tyrone Power’s performance that distinguishes itself; Power walking the gauntlet as the villain of the piece for only the second time in his entire movie career, the first, 1947’s Nightmare Alley (today considered an exemplary film noir but a horrendous flop when it premiered). At the age of 43, Power is decidedly no longer the pretty boy heartthrob we fondly recall from his tenured years at 2oth Century-Fox; nor is he – wisely, I might add – even making the attempt as such in Witness for the Prosecution; bringing a sort of compelling Lothario gone to seed to Leonard Vole; a failed inventor and notorious con who has fallen on very hard times indeed, reduced to placating much older widows like Mrs. French (Norma Varden, doing a variation on the stuffy society matron she aptly trademarked throughout the 1940’s and 50’s).
Power’s shtick with his latest invention, an eggbeater that creams and separates the yolk from the whites, proves enough of an entrée to entice Mrs. French into becoming his…um…friend, though arguably not enough to get the old beef to cut him a check for his expenses or, perhaps, even convince her of his affections. They are, after all, just a means to an end. Alas, Mrs. French’s untimely demise, discovered dead on the floor of her front parlor with strangulation marks about her neck, leads her careworn housemaid, Janet to accuse Leonard of the crime of murder.
Ah, but did he really do it? Sir Wilfrid doesn’t seem to think so, relying on his own devices and powers of deduction to piece together the clues; also, by deliberately casting a glare of refracted light off his monocle into Leonard’s eyes – ergo, the windows to his soul. It’s a clever approach for separating the liars from the seekers of truth, though it succeeds only in fooling Sir Wilfrid. For, as it is already plainly clear, our Leonard Vole is guilty as charged.
The other pivotal performance in Witness for the Prosecution belongs to Marlene Dietrich; as Leonard’s sinfully attractive, though queerly dispassionate German wife, Christine. As the caliber of Dietrich’s name above the title commands a more immediate introduction of her character in the film, we first meet Christine in a seedy basement cabaret during the war, Wilder using the flashback device to expedite her debut. Leonard is immediately attracted to Christine’s obvious assets. But he manages to remain impartial as a pack of pawing G.I.’s, a little worse for the wine and schnapps, attempt to pass Christine around for a quick grope. It’s a fairly unimpressive introduction, Dietrich, in trademarked men’s attire, warbling a few panged bars of ‘I’ll Never Go Home Anymore’; a full-sized accordion cleverly concealing her ample bosom. Wilder cannot resist the urge to have one of the officers tear at Dietrich’s pant leg, exposing her supple bare leg up to the thigh. This, it seems, is enough to incite a riot; Leonard slipping out unnoticed as the military police arrive to arrest these barroom brawlers and returning only after the deluge has passed.
In retrospect, Dietrich’s introduction is more telling of Leonard Vole’s ambitions than Christine’s; his unchivalrous nature and enterprising self-interests to take what he desires without getting all mussed up in the process. Leonard is a cunning man. In short order, Christine becomes his lover and later his wife. But the couple is never entirely happy; or rather, discover a mutual and more insidious interest in Leonard’s obvious talents for lightening the purses of unsuspecting middle-aged women. Only later do we too discover the toll Leonard’s philandering has taken on Christine; her contempt appropriately marked in the film’s climax by the plunging of a knife into this lifelong wound demarcated by jealousy. Interestingly, in Agatha Christie’s original short story, Leonard Vole is exonerated of the crime of murder and allowed to depart the courtroom with his wife (called Romaine in the book); free as a bird to pursue other hapless victims. Christie, who was not above recognizing a literary faux pas, for she herself had committed it, later endeavored to rectify this unsatisfactory conclusion to her story, appealing to the more traditional ‘crime doesn’t pay’ scenario.
Except for this aforementioned flashback, and one other illustrating how Leonard met and courted the amiable, if romantically silly and naïve, Mrs. French (instructing her as a casual passerby on which hat to buy; later, finagling his way into coming home with her, learning something of French’s past and deviously assessing the breadth of her assets under Janet’s watchful eye), Witness for the Prosecution limits the audience’s access primarily to two sets; Alexandre Trauner’s superb art direction coming to bear on Sir Wilfrid’s lavishly appointed barrister’s chambers and private living quarters, complete with a mechanized chair lift, and a meticulous recreation of the famed Old Bailey courtroom.
Witness for the Prosecution opens thus: with the arrival of famed London barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, after his near-fatal heart attack and lengthy hospital stay. He is met at the office by his ever-devoted man servant, Carter (Ian Wolfe) and tearfully ‘happy to see him’ private secretary, Miss O’Brien (Marjorie Eaton). Sir Wilfrid, however, is hardly the warm-hearted type. In fact, he is rather dismissive of their excitement to welcome him home and quite eager to pick up both his practice and old habits precisely where he left off, much to the nattering chagrin of his meddlesome nursemaid, Miss Plimsoll, whom Sir Wilfrid bitterly refers to as ‘the old blabbermouth’. However, in the interim of his recovery, Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid’s doctors and his staff have all conspired to lighten his case load; lining up modest prospects with attractive fees. This nanny-fication of the gregarious life Sir Wilfrid is used to living, as one of England’s most celebrated criminal attorneys, is cause for his considerable, caustic outrage.
But a ray of light may be at hand, particularly when old friend and solicitor, Mayhew arrives with a tempting prospect: to defend Leonard Vole on a pending charge of murder. Given the Damocles hanging over his head, Sir Wilfrid is perplexed by Leonard’s rather breezy confidence as he outlines in great detail his ‘accidental’ befriending of Mrs. French; also, his own status as a ‘happily married’ man, to whom life seems to have managed all things effortlessly. To test the validity in Leonard’s tales, Sir Wilfrid uses his monocle to refract the sunlight directly into Leonard’s eyes, quite certain the distraction will cause him to slip up and thus reveal whether or not he is, in fact, telling the truth. Leonard tolerates the glare for several moments before obscuring its intrusion with his hand. While Sir Wilfrid is decidedly embarrassed at having been found out, he remains as equally, if not more impressed with Leonard as an individual.
Leonard makes no apology for having hoped Mrs. French would finance his latest invention (the eggbeater). He also feigns, fairly convincingly, total surprise upon discovering the late Mrs. French has left him a considerable dowry of £80,000 in her will. Nevertheless, on doctor’s orders, Sir Wilfrid regrettably turns down the case, referring Mayhew to Brogan-Moore, whom he holds in very high esteem. Moments later, Leonard is arrested by police and Brogan-Moore confides that unlike Sir Wilfrid, he is not entirely convinced of his new client’s innocence, suggesting perhaps Vole is using Christine merely as his alibi.
Brogan-Moore’s assumption seems to bear itself out after Christine makes an impromptu visit to Sir Wilfrid’s; her cool detachment ruffling his feathers. Although she facetiously confirms Leonard’s story, she also insinuates that her husband has asked her to lie about the timeframe of his alibi. Her double-edged replies to Sir Wilfrid’s questioning suggest deception. But to what purpose? Perhaps, Christine is deliberately using Leonard’s current predicament to avenge the past: ‘his way with other women’. Christine also lets it be known she and Leonard are not legally married, as she never bothered to get a divorce from her first German husband. Frankly appalled by Christine’s matter-of-fact recitation of their lives, Sir Wilfrid is more stubbornly determined than ever to unearth the truth. Moreover, Christine’s deceptive nature has confirmed Sir Wilfrid’s faith in Leonard’s innocence. Clearly, the woman has something awful to hide, and far more nefarious to gain if Leonard is hanged.
Brogan-Moore prematurely concludes the case is hopeless. But Sir Wilfrid will not be dissuaded. Instead, he dives headstrong into preparing his defense. At every possible turn, Sir Wilfrid’s faith in Leonard is emphatically tested; first, by the affidavit signed by Mrs. French’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, swearing to Leonard’s amorous manipulations and how they directly led to Mrs. French drafting a new will – ergo, Leonard had prior knowledge as to his inheritance in the event of Emily’s death. Still, Leonard has a calm and calculated answer for everything. No – he knew absolutely nothing of the changes to Emily French’s will. And no – the spurious cut sustained on his finger did not come from his struggling with Emily in her last moments on earth, but is, in fact, the result of his lackadaisically slicing through some bread and his finger in his own kitchen; an accident Leonard insists Christine can confirm.
It all sounds right to Sir Wilfrid, who momentarily falls ill and is forced to withdraw from the opening statements made at trial. His spontaneous recovery is met with staunch defiance; also an inbred impatience not to fail his client. Sir Wilfrid arrives at court with a flask of brandy, lying to Miss Plimsoll that it is cocoa. As the prosecution, headed by Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher) bears down on the particulars of Leonard’s defense, Sir Wilfrid slyly pokes holes in their alternate theories of the crime. From the gallery, Miss Plimsoll takes notice of a young woman quietly observing the proceedings with intense interest. The trial continues with damning testimony given by several witnesses, including Janet, whom Sir Wilfrid discredits as being hard of hearing, also by revealing to the court she had been the sole beneficiary to Emily French’s estate prior to Leonard Vole’s romantic dalliances with the widow. Hence, in insisting on Leonard’s guilt now, presumably from having heard voices and sounds of a struggle through a heavy wooden door (when in fact, she could hear nothing at all in her advanced state of impairment), Janet is actually confessing how desperately she desires to reclaim that money she feels is owed her for all those many loyal years of service.
The crown calls Christine to the witness stand. It’s a slam dunk. Or is it? For Christine all but convicts her husband by breaking down and revealing to the court that she lied at Leonard’s behest about the time he came home on the night of the murder. The crown rests with complete confidence at having proven their case. Sir Wilfrid now calls his only witness, Leonard, who steadfastly pleads his innocence. However, under cross-examination, Mr. Myers gets Leonard to admit both he and an unidentified woman were seen at a nearby travel shop picking up brochures for a cruise on the day Emily French was murdered. Leonard insists he was harmlessly perusing the racks when the woman approached him. They were not a couple nor even friends, but actually having only just met by chance at the travel shop.
That night, Sir Wilfrid weighs his pros and cons. The trial is not going at all according to his plan. Leonard may very well be convicted. Distressed, Sir Wilfrid’s spirits prick up when he receives a mysterious telephone call from an unnamed cockney guttersnipe, insisting she knows the real scandal behind Christine Vole’s Teflon-coated façade, encouraging Sir Wilfrid to meet her at Euston Station. There, the woman offers Sir Wilfrid proof of Christine’s infidelity; letters reportedly written in her hand to a lover named Max, who was, in fact, this woman’s lover before. It all makes for compelling soap opera. Although Sir Wilfrid is intrigued, he is equally reticent to put forth uncorroborated evidence at trial. Alas, the guttersnipe has vanished into thin air. Against his better judgment, Sir Wilfrid interrupts his own closing arguments to recall Christine to the stand for further testimony. He puts to her the question of an illicit romance with Max and, under duress she crumbles and confesses. Armed with this salacious revelation, the jury quickly returns a verdict of ‘not guilty’. Alas, their haste, and the means by which he has won his case continue to nag at Sir Wilfrid. As he prepares to pack up and leave, Sir Wilfrid decides to casually confront Christine again. This time she is accomplished and gloating how her testimony was, in fact, the truth; not because she believed in Leonard’s innocence, but rather because she already knew he was guilty.
Christine assumes the cockney accent of the guttersnipe, revealing to Sir Wilfrid how he has been had by the pair, all in a maliciously concocted scenario to set Leonard free. As the ramifications of what he has done begin to sink in for Sir Wilfrid, Leonard saunters into the courtroom; the proud peacock who knew his wife would never let him down. Alas, Miss Plimsoll appears with the girl from the gallery – Diana (Ruta Lee) who throws herself at Leonard’s head, claiming she is his girl. Leonard callously explains to Christine that he considers her saving his life as mere payback for his getting her out of Germany during the war. They’re even now, and he wants absolutely nothing more to do with her. His future is with Diana.
Wounded by this revelation, and viciously stung by the specter of jealousy, Christine grabs the murder weapon from the trial and plunges it into Leonard’s back. Guards rush in and apprehend Christine, Miss Plimsoll kneeling close to the body and declaring “she’s killed him”. “She’s executed him,” Sir Wilfrid clarifies, already contemplating the prospect of taking on the case against Christine Vole. As Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll prepare to leave, she quietly asks Carter to cancel their already planned Bermuda respite; a promise earlier made by Sir Wilfrid pending the outcome of Leonard’s trial. Miss Plimsoll casually hands Sir Wilfrid his powder wig, reminding him not to forget his flask of brandy. She has known of his deceptions all along.
Witness for the Prosecution is charged with emotional electricity almost from its first scene to its last; its expertly crafted performances and clever shifts in mood sustained by Billy Wilder’s evenly paced suspense. As before, the cast is giving it their all: an awe-inspiring display of what real star power can do for a movie, even when the elements of plot occasionally veer into predictability. The supporting players are just as expertly chosen; Torin Thatcher’s pathological prosecutor, Philip Tonge’s judicious inspector, Francis Compton’s astute judge – if not of character, then most certainly, of the facts; and finally Una O'Connor’s Scottish busybody and Henry Daniell’s wry solicitor: all of these conspire to captivate.
By Billy Wilder’s more erudite and keenly developed standards, this one ought to have come across as old-fashioned – and perhaps, it still does; though in the very best tradition of English theater. Replete with double entendre and an air of sophistication for which Wilder is justly known and celebrated, Witness for the Prosecution remains an undeniably enveloping and high-spirited courtroom drama; in no small way a generous nod to Agatha Christie’s source material. Reportedly, Wilder concealed the ending of his movie even to his cast until the very end of the shoot. Today, it’s difficult, if not impossible to find anyone who doesn’t know how it will all turn out in the end. But the verdict isn’t really the point of the piece, or this exercise on celluloid and Wilder never lets us forget Witness for the Prosecution is a masterpiece, earmarked by the presence of its star quality.
It’s about time Witness for the Prosecution found its way to Blu-ray. I say this knowing much too well just how many great movies from Hollywood’s golden era remain MIA from hi-def with narrowly a hint they might surface in 1080p anytime soon. Kino/Lorber’s deal with MGM at last gives us an anamorphic transfer of this classy classic. Alas, it’s only single-layered and suffering from a fairly anemic bit rate for a two hour movie. I cannot understand why companies continue to market Blu-ray transfers that do not utilize and maximize all of the available disc space. While some pundits continue to argue that maximization means very little if the original elements and mastering is flawed, I’ll simply go on record with the opposite viewpoint: if it’s there why not use it?!?
The open credits were not altogether promising; very soft and grainy and with flashes of age-related dirt and debris dancing about. Oh, no, I thought. What next? Mercifully, my low expectations for a less than great presentation were mostly abated by what followed. This isn’t a perfect presentation. But it does surpass the horrendous MGM DVD from 2001. Not only is the 1.66:1 image anamorphically enhanced, it also sharpens up considerably. Black levels are never quite as deep as they ought to be. On the other hand, they’ve greatly advanced over the SD version. There’s some very good contrast and solid layering and depth, particularly in close ups, with beautifully rendered fine detail in actor’s faces, hair, clothing, etc. Better still, age-related damage is practically non-existent. A few light speckles here and there is about all I saw; forgivable, I suppose, since no additional cleanup has been performed to ready these elements for hi-def.
The DTS 2.0 audio has also been adeptly transferred. Let’s not go overboard here. Witness for the Prosecution is a dialogue-driven movie with a sparse score by Matty Malneck. It all sounds as it should without really distinguishing itself. I’m shocked – shocked!!! – Kino/Lorber has included a 7-minute video piece featuring director Volker Schlöndorff along with some inserted footage of Billy Wilder reflecting on Agatha Christie and the film. It’s all in German with English subs and a few choice moments of Wilder speaking French. Kino is not readily known for compiling anything in the way of extras for its catalog output. How and why they decided to include this snippet derived from the 2006 documentary ‘Billy Wilder Speaks’ is an oddity. But hey - we’ll take it, and very gratefully too. Bottom line: not perfect, but recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)