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Promise: No Spoilers
The present owners of MGM no longer have their own inside home video division, as 20th Fox is now doing their actual distribution duties. But licenses for great titles formerly passed over for Blu-ray are being snapped up by outside companies. The new Kino branded videodisc line KL Studio Classics is concentrating on MGM's United Artists library. The good news is that Kino has made a start with the UA Billy Wilder films, most all of which are so good that they can be enjoyed over and over.
Surely the most exciting Agatha Christie 'whodunnit' adapted to the screen, Witness for the Prosecution shows us Billy Wilder at his entertaining best, in the years before he settled down into light romantic comedies. Tightly constructed and featuring a half dozen perfectly written and acted characterizations, the picture more than holds its own with Wilder's impressive list of accomplishments. Wilder is obviously enthusiastic about setting a movie within the nail-biting courtroom drama genre, with the pomp and ritual of English courts. The show also has elements in common with the director's postwar German reconstruction pictures.
Wilder drops us almost immediately into a busy, amusing tale with a number of fussy personalities to enjoy. Ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) takes on a new case much to the consternation of his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Handsome Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of the murder of Emily French (Norma Varden), an older woman he was spending time with. Although reasonably honest-looking, Vole does seem to have had some moral lapses, complications that present Sir Wilfrid with an uphill struggle. And what's Sir Wilfrid to make of young Vole's wife, the mysterious German war bride Christine Helm Vole (Marlene Dietrich)?
Singing the praises of Witness for the Prosecution seems the proper review approach, as this is one "old B&W movie" that still wins over general audiences. Instead of twisting the source material into his brand of comedy, Wilder executes a flatteringly faithful adaptation. He enhances aspects of Agatha Christie's work in the same way he would much later celebrate and analyze Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character. Wilder tailors the show to fit his star Charles Laughton. He flavors the dialogue with witty Wilderisms but the tone and basic thrills are directly from the source: lying witnesses, obsessed investigators, surprise revelations, and dizzying character turns.
It all works like an oiled watch, better than some of Wilder's later pictures. Each character has just enough space to shine, with married couple Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester given perfect co-starring parts. Tyrone Power's aging good looks and protests of innocence make him a doubtful hero. Marlene Dietrich is more forceful than ever in her last great role. With Wilder the story always came first, but critics often compare Dietrich's casting here with a character she played for the director ten years earlier. The actress had strong misgivings about the Nazi opportunist character given her in A Foreign Affair.
Laughton's legal associates help him to navigate complex defense strategies while the cagey barrister sneaks cigars from under his nurse's nose. Laughton and his glum solicitor Henry Daniell race about like Sherlock and Watson to collect last-minute evidence. The drama makes use of flashbacks, a Wilder rarity. In proper Agatha Christie style, the story threads converge on a few crucial hours in the courtroom. Under Wilder's direction, Laughton shakes the courtroom with some of his lines: "Are you not a CHRONIC AND HABITUAL LIAR???!!"
These were the in-between years for Wilder, after Charles Brackett and before I.A.L. Diamond, when Wilder worked with an ever-changing succession of writing partners. Maybe his domineering nature frustrated them, but the movies didn't suffer. His The Spirit of St. Louis falters only because the studio was forced to re-cut it, wiping out some of Wilder's basic premise. Witness for the Prosecution was a huge success just when Wilder needed one. It convinced Hollywood that the Viennese director hadn't lost his touch.
Wilder finesses the smaller parts with more finesse than the visually oriented Alfred Hitchcock. Actors known in Hitchcock roles, Norma Varden and John Williams, are terrific here without being caricatured. Torin Thatcher has the thankless Hamilton Burger role, while Una O'Connor remains amusing, still hard at it at age 76.
Tyrone Power is another one of Wilder's gigolo characters, slightly corrupt men that play deceitful games with older women and live to regret it, as in Sunset Blvd.. Wilder denied it, but more than one biographer has used his experience as a Berlin eintanzer (a sort of dime-a-dance boy) to make thematic connections between his personal life and the gigolos he writes into his movies.
Wilder once again locates a source of evil in decaying post-war Germany. Christine begins in the same place as A Foreign Affair's Fraulein Von Schluetow, with Dietrich again a chanteuse who successfully attaches herself to a foreigner to escape the ruins of Berlin. Marlene Dietrich is no ex-consort of Adolph Hitler, as was her Erika Von Schluetow in A Foreign Affair. This time it's different, though. That comedy is almost too sophisticated in its observance that human beings must subsist in a variety of moral climates, and aren't necessarily to be condemned for doing what needs to be done. Dietrich's mantrap opportunist Christine Helm is just as complex, and defeats classification as simply Good or Bad. Wilder remained ambivalent and adult about such issues. It's quite a leap when Laughton's Wilfrid goes from hating Frau Helm, to regarding her as "a remarkable woman."
The richness Wilder brings to Witness for the Prosecution just makes Agatha Christie look that much more accomplished. Attracting six nominations but winning no Oscars, Wilder's drawing-room cleverness couldn't outshine the grandeur of David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai.
The older DVD can safely be given away to the library, for KL Studio Classics' Blu-ray of Witness for the Prosecution makes mincemeat of its outdated non-enhanced transfer. The new widescreen HD image does great things with Russell Harlan's smooth B&W cinematography. This was Billy Wilder's only film with Harlan but his second collaboration with the great designer Alexandre Trauner, who would become a fixture on future Wilder pictures. Although I've been told that some disc companies of late have been occasionally enlarging and cropping flat transfers to create widescreen movies, my information is that Witness for the Prosecution has not been cheated - it was transferred directly from film to the 1:66 aspect ratio seen here.
This is a good title to hold for a screening when there won't be any interruptions. It comes complete with its original final voiceover appeal for theater patrons not to discuss the surprise ending, a clever showmanship gambit that surely helped word of mouth. Prosecution and Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder are perhaps the best murder suspense thrillers adapted by classic-era directors.
The original trailer begins with portent-laden narration by Paul Frees and ends with a hearty endorsement by actor Charles Laughton, who really knows how to toss a sales pitch. A special extra is about ten minutes of interview material, mostly in subtitled German, between Billy Wilder and director Volker Schlöndorff. It is probably taken from Schlöndorff's documentary Billy Wilder Speaks. Wilder says that Marlene Dietrich originally approached him with the idea to direct Prosecution. He makes the case that Agatha Christie wrote flat characters, but that her nearly flawless mysteries were brilliantly structured. His major addition was the addition of Sir Wilfrid's health issues and Lanchester's nurse character, plus all the business with cognac and cigars. That makes the show a combination of Christie plotting and Wilder impishness.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Witness for the Prosecution Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.