Tuesday, 5 October 2010


"Once in 50 years suspense like this!"

Prior to directing the popular rom-coms SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), Billy Wilder had gone more serious and did so through adapting Agatha Christie's novel turned Broadway play WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1958) into a successful suspense film, that captivates audiences (and ironically like Some Like It Hot) features three strong lead performances, a witty script and many extreme twists and turns that leave us shocked throughout but nonetheless in awe of such an underrated film that is still one of the great courtroom dramas of all time!

In London, veteran barrister Sir Wilfred Robards returns to his office/home having been released from hospital after a couple of months following a heart attack. He is pestered by his fussy but long-suffering nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) who wants Sir Wilfred to rest without getting involved in any cases. However solicitor Mayhew (Henry Darnell) approaches him with help with taking on a murder case where an American man named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) has been accused of murdering a wealthy middle-aged widow in order to claim £80, 000 from her will. Leonard's insists that although he befriended the woman, he never had intentions of killing her to gain her fortune and pleads his innocence. Upon his arrest, his German wife Christina (Marlene Dietrich) manages to persuade Sir Wilfred to become her husband's barrister but it is clear that there is something suspicious about her support for her husband (the pair met in Germany following the end of World War II). Once the trial gets underway many twists and turns add to the tension of the case where Christina's commitment to her husband proves inaccurate, certain witnesses have their own idea about Leonard's involvement in the murder and Sir Wilfred, despite having to take pills, uses his experience and authority to try and prove Leonard's innocence which leads to an ending which originally seems to give a sentimental feeling to it only to be even more deceitful than can be suggested particularly in the final few minutes but gives great value to how the justice system can be flawed in the best of times.

Witness for the Prosecution is yet another highlight in the great director's history, and it proves that courtroom dramas can be both riveting and a great opportunity for some first rate comedy. Towards the end, Wilder bombards us with twist after twist, each one both making sense and topping the one before it. The film is deliriously entertaining throughout, with some truly great lines of dialogue (most of which are very quotable) and the formula comes from several angles with themes of love, health, sacrifice and most notably, justice, which proves even more important in the film's climax. Laughton's dialog is terrific throughout, bringing a number of laughs to this serious film with a sharp tongue, all bluster and cheeky into the bargain. His interplay with real life wife Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll) is quality and he is just a joy to watch. Marlene Dietrich's turn as Christine Vole is wonderfully sultry and femme fatalistic, it's a sizzling performance that crowns this delightful film while the other main female lead Lanchester is a scream as Laughton's by the book nurse. Her and Laughton had a marriage of "convenience" for many years and their fondness for each other comes through making their verbal fights even funnier and it's another testament to Wilder's genius for putting her and Laughton together. The courtroom scenes are terrific as Wilder ratchets up the tension on two fronts - the verdict regarding Power's alleged crime, and the uncertainty as to whether Robart's ticker will keep going long enough to hear it.

The flaws to the film do come in part to the acting. Tyrone Power uses his charm skillfully in his early scenes, yet seems to lose focus later on particularly with his overacting in the later scenes where he proclaims his 'innocence' but considering this was his final film before his sudden death, it certainly was one to remember. Dietrich though masterful in the film, does suffer at one point in the film with a dodgy accent as the surprise witness who complicates the proceeding. As for the plot, though interesting, could never happen in real life as things work out just a tiny bit too conveniently as well as being filled with unrealistic interruptions from the accused and surprise witnesses from both sides. But overall, add in Wilder's carefully-conceived adaptation and flawless direction it makes this is a finely made, superbly acted, and very gripping mystery.


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