"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 21, 2012

Classic Film: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) by Wilder

In Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a man, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a former RAF sergeant and now inventor of kitchen appliances down on his luck, is accused of murder. There is only circumstantial evidence and that all points in his direction (DNA tests were not possible yet in 1957, otherwise this case would have soon be settled). Vole is accused of murdering Miss French, a rich, older woman who had become fond of him, even making him the beneficiary of her will. So he needs a good lawyer to get him off the hook: he does an appeal on master barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton).

The massively obese Robarts takes on the case although he has just left hospital after recovering from a heart attack and is engaged in various battles with his bossy private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), for the desire for cigars, cognac and the adrenaline offered by a criminal case prove stronger than prudence. I like that mountain of a man - he is massively human. In real life, Laughton and Lanchester were married, which gives her mothering and his grumpiness some marital reality.

Another intriguing element that pulls Robarts into the case is Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a very cold and self-possessed woman who has a nice surprise up her sleeve - when the case is heared, she appears for the prosecution and busts the alibi she had originally provided for Vole! True to her character in previous movies, she is a former cabaret dancer picked up by Vole in a bombed out German city.

Well, Sir Robarts has something to put his teeth into! I won't go into details for this is really a film where the plot and its final twists (and surprise ending) are important. But I would like to draw your attention to the atmosphere and the characters, which are well drawn and superbly acted. Marlene Dietrich gives one of the best performances of her career, even entertaining us with a cockney accent. Charles Laughton is, well, himself. He anchors the whole movie, childlike in his transgressions (substituting brandy for cocoa in his thermos bottle), garrulous, mischievous but also utterly charming. The dialogues, too, are smart and witty, as is to be expected of Billy Wilder. The courtroom dueling is fun, as is the beautiful recreation of the Old Bailey. The original story, by the way, is a play by Agatha Christie.

My evaluation: 8.5 points out of 10 for Laughton racing up and down with his staircase lift.