Witness for the Prosecution (1957, Billy Wilder)


Agatha Christie’s hit play Witness for the Prosecution is theoretically an unlikely choice for director Billy Wilder, but audiences nowadays tend to forget how wide-ranging Wilder’s output really was — between his famed comedies, social problem movies, historical dramas, acerbic thrillers and fluffy musicals, it’s only natural he’d try his hand at a courtroom drama slash murder mystery. Its closest relative in tone and intent in Wilder’s output is probably Sunset Blvd., a marginally stronger, much more iconic, and considerably more cynical production. In some ways, it’s arguably more satisfying. Both films display the influence, visually in particular, of Alfred Hitchcock — but Wilder one-ups Hitchcock here. His own courtroom picture with Charles Laughton, The Paradine Case, is badly cast, dull and one of his few American misfires. Thanks in part to the big asset that is Christie’s well-conceived plotting, Wilder is more at home with the particular nuances of this bizarre tale, as is Laughton.

Laughton’s the man you trust in this one, not the one you hate. He can be a great villain (or a great gray area — see Spartacus), but he has to have the entire audience on his side for this intricately-designed movie (from an Agatha Christie play) to work. He plays a belaguered, sickly barrister brought back into court despite doctor’s orders so he can attempt to keep Tyrone Power out of prison for killing a kindly woman who was keeping him on the hook financially. Laughton’s Sir Robarts is funny, unfazed, and strangely warm and believable. That’s the only way to sell the way the story turns out, which is such a shock that there’s an announcement over the credits begging viewers not to tell anyone.

And along the way to the stunning conclusion that forces reevaluation of everything before (thrice over), we get as absorbed as we will ever be in a courtroom picture, thanks to Wilder’s tremendously wise execution… and we learn not to place our faith in trickery. There isn’t much to this film visually, but there doesn’t really have to be. It only leaves its stagebound settings very briefly, for a mostly unnecessary but wild flashback to how Leonard Vole first met the key person in the case, his wife Christine — whom he met during the war while stationed in Germany. Christine is played by Marlene Dietrich, whose presence automatically renders the film rather glamorous, and perhaps no one could contend with the idea of not allowing us to revel a bit in her glory, though her much stronger achievement is difficult to describe without giving the game away here. Wilder was a less prinicipally verbal filmmaker than some tiresomely argue, but this movie shows he knows when to get out of the way.

Not to belabor this point, but how in the world is Laughton third billed in this? He’s the entire reason the film works and is such a giant blast to watch. All of his cantankerous sparring with everyone in his path, outside and especially inside the courtroom, is such delirious fun that at times the actual case at hand can almost seem a tad superfluous. Still, Wilder — for whom this is indeed a stylistic outlier in terms of his semi-suppression of his usual crackling, acidic voice — does a great job of making this unstoppably entertaining for pretty much every precious second, and those closing five minutes wrote the book on one-upping a movie-smart audience.

Marlene Dietrich is quite good (like her costar, she suffered in another U.S. Hitchcock failure, Stage Fright), Tyrone Power looks at the end of his career not much older than he did in the ’30s, and the final product is a devious anomaly that calls everything it holds up to critical scrutiny. Things just aren’t what they seem, and not one character in this film will know the real breadth of that until its final seconds. Nor will you if it’s your first time, and I’d forgotten many of the secrets after about eight years away from the thing. Witness for the Prosecution is a rich pleasure even after you know all of its tricks.

[Expanded from a 2005 review.]

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