Monday, November 17, 2014

Witness for the Prosecution: It's Billy Wilder--Not Hitch!

A dear friend of mine has referred to Witness for the Prosecution as an Alfred Hitchcock movie on more than one occasion. That's understandable--it looks, smells, and feels like a Hitch pic. The fact that it was directed by Billy Wilder is a testament to Mr. Wilder's versatility as a filmmaker. The Austrian-born writer-director was adept at making screwball comedies (One, Two, Three), film noir (Double Indemnity), satire (The Apartment), sophisticated comedy (Sabrina), drama (The Lost Weekend), and romance (Avanti!). In Witness for the Prosecution, he expertly blends courtroom drama and humor--in the best Hitchcockian tradition.

Tyrone Power as the defendant.
Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a grumpy but shrewd London barrister who was recently released from the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Against the advice of his physicians, Sir Wilfred takes on a murder case (his specialty). His client is an affable chap named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) accused of killing an elderly lady. Vole's alleged motive is that the murder victim left him a substantial amount of money in her will. His alibi rests on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who leaves a decidedly cold impression with Sir Wilfred.

Based on a short story and stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is justly famous for its twist ending--which is flawlessly executed. It was probably one of the first films that marketed its climatic twist. Indeed, a voiceover prior to the closing credits asked moviegoers not to reveal the ending to their friends. However, like Hitchcock's Psycho, Witness is a strong film that's enhanced by its famous plot device. It certainly doesn't rely on a clever trick to be entertaining.

The film's success can be attributed to those old basics of good acting and good script writing. Laughton, who had a tendency to ham up some of his later roles, finds the perfect blend of seriousness and humor. He is matched by Dietrich and his wife Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, a nurse charged with the unenviable task of caring for Sir Wilfred. Lanchester and Laughton make a delightful comic team, one savvy enough to generate laughs out of the contents of a thermos. Dietrich has a more difficult role, especially since her character is a conundrum for much of the film. However, when it comes to her big scenes, she exceeds all expectations.

Nurse Plimsoll and Sir Wilfred.
There was a time when I considered Tyrone Power to be the film's weak link. I still don't believe his performance ranks with the ones delivered by his co-stars. However, I have gradually come to the realization that Power is portraying a character playing a character. That's got to be a challenge, so, on that level, he does a solid job as the smarmy Vole.

Marlene Dietrich in the witness box.
In adapting Christie's play, Wilder and co-writers Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz made two significant additions. First, they added scenes showing how Leonard met Christine and later befriended the murder victim. The latter doesn't add much to the plot, but the scenes of Christine soften her character and help justify actions taken later in the film. Dietrich's nightclub number was reportedly based on a scene cut from Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), which starred Dietrich, Jean Arthur, and John Lund. The cabaret set cost over $75,000 to build.

Still, Wilder's most significant contribution to the script was the creation of the delightful Nurse Plimsoll. Many of the film's best lines are delivered by her or directed at her by the gruff barrister (Miss Plimsoll: "Sir Wilfred, we mustn't forget that we've had a teeny weeny heart attack."). Plus, Wilder gets a lot of mileage out of Sir Wilfred's amusing attempts to hide his vices (e.g., cigars and brandy) from Miss Plimsoll's watchful eyes.

Witness for the Prosecution earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Wilder, Best Actor for Laughton, and Best Supporting Actress for Lanchester. It was remade for television in 1982 with another impressive cast: Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfred, Deborah Kerr as Miss Plimsoll, and Diana Rigg as Christine. I haven't seen that version since it's original broadcast, but recall it being very well done.


  1. I love "Witness for the Prosecution" and appreciated your observation that it looks and plays like a work of Hitchcock. This is definitely my favorite Marlene Dietrich role. She is wonderfully believable and her performance is essential to the success of the film. "Witness" is one of those little gems that I cannot turn away from once I watch it for a few minutes. Excellent review, Rick!

  2. Toto, I agree completely! Another compelling courtroom drama that always hooks me is the very different ANATOMY OF A MURDER.

  3. One of my favourite films and for all the reasons you pointed out here – good script, good acting and good directing. And you're right about the comedic timing between Lanchester and Laughton.

    The first time I saw this movie, I was stunned at how good Marlene Dietrich's performance was. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I didn't expect that calibre of performance. As your previous commenter said, I can't watch it for just a few minutes. If I see it on television, I have to stop doing everything else.

  4. This is a favorite of mine, it does have a Hitchcock feeling but I can see the Wilder touch in the levity. Hitch was great but his humor was of a different sort.

    Dietrich, as everyone has said, is perhaps the best she ever was in this. Such a shame this was almost the end of her film career and her bypassing for a nomination that year is hard to understand. Lanchester was rightly nominated and there was room for Marlene. She was certainly more worthy than Diane Varsi's bland work in Peyton Place and as much as I love Carolyn Jones her five minutes in the dreary The Bachelor Party didn't really rate a nod. To me Dietrich should have won, not just been nominated but the Oscars so rarely make sense.

    I saw that TV version with Ralph Richardson and Diana Rigg. It was terrific, different of course but well made and those two were fantastic. The only weakness it had was Beau Bridges in Tyrone Power's part. Power wasn't as strong in the original as the rest of the cast, and he looked terribly aged-not surprising that he'd die from a heart attack within the year, but when you look at it as he was playing a part within his part he seems better. Bridges was hopelessly out of his depth in the remake.

  5. I showed this to my daughter when she was in high school. It was like seeing that ending again for the first time. She gasped, she stared then she jumped up and shouted "That was freaking awesome!". Three cheers for Christie and Wilder. You wouldn't think it, but it was a match made in movie Heaven.

  6. I really like Witness for the Prosecution. I recall recording it on TV a few years back, then only getting around to watching it so I could tape over it with something else, except I ended up enjoying the movie so much that I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm afraid I could kinda see the twist coming, though. I don't want to accidentally give it away- anybody who hasn't seen the movie yet should probably stop reading this- but something about that "mystery woman" just felt off to me.

  7. There was a time when I considered "Witness" more Hitchcockian than I do now. The plot, with its twists and turns and red herrings, is the sort of thing Sir Alfred had a penchant for. But Hitchcock was an advocate of "pure cinema" - visual storytelling was his great love and his greatest gift. Wilder, also talented in so many ways, was, I think, above all else, a brilliant screenwriter. That said, there was a time when I would pause on the subject of "Witness" before saying with certainty that it was Wilder, not Hitchcock.

  8. I've always liked this film, Rick. Loved the duo of Laughton and Lanchester, of course. My only quibble has always been that 'you know who' isn't disguised enough. For me it was easy to see who was who and what was what if you know what I mean. But maybe that's only because I'd read the short story and knew going in.