Synopsis: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton star in this “brilliantly made courtroom drama” (Film Daily) that left audiences reeling from its surprise twists and shocking climax. Directed by Billy Wilder, scripted by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, and based on Agatha Christie’s hit London play, this splendid, six-time Oscar®-nominated classic “crackles with emotional electricity” (The New York Times) and continues to keep movie lovers riveted until the final, mesmerizing frame.
When a wealthy widow is found murdered, her married suitor, Leonard Vole (Power), is accused of the crime. Vole’s only hope for acquittal is the testimony of his wife (Dietrich)… but his airtight alibi shatters when she reveals some shocking secrets of her own!
I’m steps away from having watched the bulk of Billy Wilder’s directorial output and I’ve got to say that I’m very impressed. Until this most recent batch, which included his more serious fare, I had no idea that he had been capable of such thought-provoking and/or riveting gems.
Already, in his lighter stuff, there were tons of classics (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie). But, with ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘Ace in the Hole’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, and now ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, I realize that there was a reason that he was considered a top-notch player in Hollywood.
…and I haven’t even gotten my hands on some of his other notable films, like ‘The Lost Weekend’ or ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’!
‘Witness for the Prosecution’, as one may surmise, is one of the good ones (it would even be one of the great ones if not for an issue that I will get to shortly). Based on a very successful play by Agatha Christie, there was really no way that this could have failed – especially since it was adapted by Billy Wilder himself (with the help of a couple others), an accomplished screenplay writer.
Only two things could have gone wrong in transferring a play to the silver screen: the adaptation, and the acting.
Unfortunately, someone chose Marlene Dietrich for a key role in this film. I fully understand that she is a legend, but I’d seen her in only one film previous to this, ‘The Scarlet Empress’, and I laughed all the way through because her performance was so insufferable. It pretty much put me off and I lost any interest in seeing her films. ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ seals the deal for me: I do NOT want to see another of her films!
Dietrich is so unspeakably bad that the only credible moments she has are when she is impassable, being an ice queen – an easy thing to achieve if you’re able to act like a human robot. Beyond that, any emotion that she displayed appeared fake – which may have been okay for the part, actually, because her character was pretending from time to time. Except that it was so bad that I laughed out loud watching her in certain scenes. Again. Her performance was astonishingly weak.
But I will give her points for presence, though. Despite being unrealistic to the point of hilarity, she took over the screen whenever she was on. I don’t know what that’s about, but she certainly had star power of some sort: her steely gaze, her locked jaw, her immovable form didn’t grace the screen so much as overwhelmed it. Even the likes of Charles Laughton and John Williams couldn’t match her power. And that’s saying something. Too bad she can’t act.
(speaking of people who can’t act, I suspect that Madonna fashioned her acting persona after Dietrich in the early ’90s. After all, she took on her look for a few years, and she also tried the ice queen thing for a short while. She just didn’t have the charisma to make up for her lack of chops )
Conversely, Dietrich was surrounded by seasoned actors who could work the material arguably well:
The weakest of the bunch, in my mind, was Tyrone Powers. It was the first time that I’d ever seen him on screen, and I was actually quite impressed with him. He had plenty of magnetism himself, giving us a notable performance from the onset. However, towards the end of the picture, when he was required to emote more dramatically, he became far less credible. Otherwise, I quite liked him.
John Williams was terrific, as per usual. Here he had a secondary role as solicitor Brogan-Moore, assistant to Sir Wilfrid, and his stoic, if not stuffy, demeanour was absolutely perfect for the part. One couldn’t ask for a better representation of a dutiful man giving his all to his work, irrespective of his personal concerns.
Charles Loughton, whom I’ve only seen in a handful of films, is as good as ever. Here he plays a lawyer who takes on the defence of a man charged with murder, even though, having only just returned from the hospital, his doctors would have him avoid stressful work. He convincingly gives us a sharp, unflappable, but slightly mischievous character. I loved his no-nonsense way of handling the case, and he helped to bring a little bit of humour to the film.
In fact, that was one of the nice touches of the film. Even though it’s a drama, and part of it takes place in a courthouse, the filmmakers had the good sense of throwing in a character not present in the original play – that of Sir Wilfrid’s nurse, Miss Pimsoll. The banter between the two of them was charged just enough to provide for some light chuckles, and I think that this made the film much more enjoyable than if it had been a straight drama and whodunit.
‘Witness for the Prosecution’ would have been straightforward, maybe even plain, if not for the afore-mentioned banter and the ending; we’ve all seen many such court-room dramas and murder mysteries, and the core story doesn’t really stand out beyond its final twists. But, again, thanks to the filmmakers’ choices, it makes for a very entertaining two hours.