Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment,
Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, The Private Life of
Sherlock Holmes and Some Like it Hot.
Perhaps the best 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. It's so tightly constructed, it at first seems to bear little
relation to his other work, like, perhaps The Spirit of St. Louis. But after taking in
the film's half-dozen perfectly written and acted characterizations, the picture finds its place in
Wilder's line of post-war German reconstruction pictures, as if Germany's collective crime had
spilled over into an English courtroom melodrama.
Synopsis (no spoilers):
Ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) takes on a case, much to
the consternation of his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power)
is accused of the murder of Emily French (Norma Varden), an older woman he was seeing. Sir Wilfrid
has an uphill struggle on his hands. Although a resonably honest-looking man, Vole does seem to have
some moral lapses, behaving like a gigolo. And what's Sir Wilfrid to make of his War Bride wife,
the mysterious Christine Helm Vole (Marlene Dietrich)?
Let me say first off that this review won't reveal any major plot points or spoil Witness for
the Prosecution. There's actually not that much to review. Instead of twisting the source
material into his kind of comedy, Wilder has done the kind of flatteringly faithful adaptation
he applied to
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes years
later. Yes, it's flavored with Wilderisms, but the tone and basic thrills are from the source:
lying witnesses, obsessed investigators, surprise revelations, and dizzying character turns.
These where the years between Charles Brackett and 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. Witness for the Prosecution was a huge success just when he needed
it, and convinced Hollywood that Wilder hadn't lost his touch.
It all works like an oiled watch, better than many 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 gets her last great role, a gift from Wilder for playing a character she hated ten
years earlier, a Nazi opportunist in A Foreign Affair.
Laughton and his courtroom helpers figure out complex defense strategies while the cagey barrister
sneaks cigars. 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. All the threads
converge in proper Agatha Christie style on a few crucial hours in the courtroom, with Laughton
encouraged to pull out the stops: "Are you not a CHRONIC AND HABITUAL LIAR???!!"
Wilder handles the smaller parts with a finesse that Alfred Hitchcock rarely touched. Actors known in Hitchcock
roles, Norma Varden and John Williams, are terrific here without being caricatured.
Wilder once again finds the evil for Witness for the Prosecution in decaying post-war Germany.
Marlene Dietrich is no ex-consort of Adolph Hitler, as she was in A Foreign Affair; that
comedy is almost too sophisticated in its observance that human beings thrive in all moral climates,
and aren't necessarily to be condemned for it. Dietrich's mantrap opportunist means nobody harm,
but is too conditioned to survival to be swayed by anything as abstract as Love.
Prosecution's Christine Helm starts off in the same place as A Foreign Affair, with
Dietrich again a chanteuse who successfully attaches herself to a foreigner to escape the ruins
of Berlin. This time it's different, though. I'm restrained from explaining her further, but
Billy Wilder again makes Dietrich the film's most complicated character, one that defeats
classification as simply Good or Bad. Wilder remained ambivalent and adult about such issues,
and the richness he brings to Witness for the Prosecution just makes Agatha Christie look
that much more accomplished. It was nominated six times but won no Oscars; Wilder's drawing-room
cleverness couldn't outshine the grandeur of David Lean's
Bridge on the River Kwai.
Tyrone Power is also another one of Wilder's gigolo characters, men who deceitfully play along with
older women and live to regret it, as in
Sunset Blvd.. Wilder denied it, but more
than one biographer has used Wilder's experience as a Berlin eintanzer, sort of a dime-a-dance
boy, to make thematic connections between his movies and his life.
MGM's DVD of Witness for the Prosecution is included in their new 9-title boxed set (well,
almost new, it came out almost two months ago) but it was already a couple of years old. Proving that MGM
either doesn't get 16:9 enhancement, or doesn't value their late-50s B&W catalog no matter how
big the picture, Prosecution is transferred flat letterboxed. It's a good transfer, but
not what the picture deserves. It comes complete with the final text card asking theater patrons not to
discuss the surprise ending, a simple showmanship gambit that surely helped word of mouth, out-did
William Castle and gave Alfred Hitchcock some good ideas.
There are no extras, save for a trailer. This is a good title to hold for a screening when there
won't be any interruptions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Witness for the Prosecution rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson