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Witness for the Prosecution
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by MP Bartley

"Everybody knows this is guilty...of being awesome."
5 stars

It's testament to the brilliance of Billy Wilder that his adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel is never really rated as one of his best.

No, the likes of The Apartment, Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot are the ones usually regarded as his masterpieces, whilst even the likes of The Lost Weekend or Stalag 17 generally got more talk. This could be the forgotten gem in his catalogue.

British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just come out of hospital after a bout of ill health and under strict doctors orders to avoid excitement, alcohol and cigars and has been assigned a live in nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) to make sure he obeys, despite his complaints. However, his interest is piqued by the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an American accused of murdering a rich and elderly spinster who he had formed a friendship of. Suspected of killing her in order to profit from her will, the key to Vole's defence is his German wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich). She's a strange, distant and cold woman, but is crucial to Wilfred's case as she can provide an alibi for Leonard on the night of the murder. That's if she is who she says she is, of course.

It would be wrong to think that Wilder rewrote the rule book of how to do courtroom dramas, as essentially the plot follows the general course of most other courtroom dramas - evidence is uncovered, dismissed, witnesses questioned with a few late curveballs thrown in just to shake it up a bit. No, the brilliance of Witness for the Prosecution lies in its script and the performances within the film. The script is a marvel, full of quotable lines, brilliant one-liners and a textbook example of how a film can move from comedy to drama and back again in just one scene. It spins through the different tones of the material beautifully, making you howl with laughter one minute, and then shocked by developments the next. Wilder chivvies the film along wonderfully; there's never enough time to question any potential gaps in the film's logic as it moves at a whipcrack pace and for a film mainly confined to stuffy courtrooms and bookish offices, it's marvellously giddy and exciting.

As the man accused, Power is an amiable blank, as he probably should be, really - his blankness is exactly why we're not sure whether to believe his story is not. Dietrich strikes the exact same note of ambiguity, but just in a different manner - you're never quite sure if she's being played or doing the playing. Someone who does do all the playing however, is Laughton, turning in possibly the finest work of his career. Blessed with a voice that can drop out oily sarcasm the next and then cut through with razor-sharp intelligence the next, Laughton commands the screen from the off. He clearly loves the material and it's impossible not to be riveted by what he's doing. The opening half hour where he battles with Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester also does great work to stop being overwhelmed by Laughton - their feisty chemistry surely spilling over from their real-life marriage), is confronted with a newly-installed stairlift at his office and tries to smoke a sneaky cigar whilst questioning Vole, is a masterclass in comic timing and clearly the work of an actor having the time of his life with the material that he's been given.

The overriding feeling is one of a beautifully sculpted plot, allied with some terrific performances that helps elevate the film out of its pulpy origins - the kind of thing that looks incredibly easy on screen, but is obviously so hard to do right, as so few other films of a similar ilk are as entertaining this one.

Despite naming this as one of Wilder's great unsung films, it's tempting to wonder just how much input he had into it. Perhaps anyone could turn up, give the script to Laughton and then let the sparks fly. But then, if making the film was as great as watching it, why would anyone want to interfere?

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originally posted: 04/07/12 21:08:22
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User Comments

4/10/12 Carol Miles Laughton, Dietrich and even Lanchester...UNBELEIVEABLE. 5 stars
2/05/08 Paul Shortt Enjoyable and captivating classic 5 stars
5/10/04 John it twists and turns rather well and then it REALLY gets going! 5 stars
8/20/03 Goofy Maxwell Poppin nitro pills w/ whiskey chasers, Laughton sets off the fireworks w/ a lit cigar. 5 stars
2/25/03 R.W. Welch As good as any courtroom drama out there; Dietrich and Laughton especially arresting. 5 stars
2/11/03 Charles Tatum One of Wilder's best 5 stars
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  02-Dec-1957 (NR)



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