103 of 109 people found the following review helpful
Although this film is filled with a bevy of excellent actors and actresses, and although he did play the part of Gracchus in SPARTACUS a couple of years later, and an excellent supporting role in ADVISE AND CONSENT a couple of years after that, this is the last truly great performance in the career of perhaps the greatest character actor film has seen. Charles Laughton was in no sense a leading man: obsese, unattractive, unathletic, awkward. He nonetheless managed to put together an astonishing career. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was released in 1957, but until that moment, the 1950s had not been kind to Laughton, whose greatest success came in the 1930s and 1940s. He had directed the remarkable THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER in 1955, but his acting parts in the decade, apart from David Lean's HOBSON'S CHOICE, were for the most part undistinguished and not among the finest of his career. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is Laughton's glorious return and, because of declining health, last great role. If WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION had nothing else to recommend it, Laughton's performance would make it well, well worth seeing.
Luckily, this film has far more than Laughton to recommend it. Ironically, it was also the last great role for Tyrone Power, for whom WITNESS was also a part of a comeback (he also excelled in THE SUN ALSO RISES). I have to say, for anyone who had seen Power in films in the 1940s, his physical appearance in 1957 is shocking. Much like Errol Flynn, he had lived a hard life, and it shows. He would die of a heartattack a year after this performance, and looks much older than 43 years old. Nonetheless, the remarkable thing about Power is that while not a particularly great actor during the heyday of his career, when he looks carried him from role to role, near the end of his life he grew considerably as an actor. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is one of his better performances, by far. Unlike Laughton and Power, both aging and in poor health, but similar to both in that the 1950s had up to that point not been one of her most active decades, Marlene Dietrich appears barely to have aged since the 1930s. The kinds of parts she was best suited for were far too subversive for the staid 1950s. Her natural cynicism and sexuality were far too threatening at that time even for the darkest of film noir. So, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was something of a comeback (or the continuation of a comeback in the case of Power) for the three principles. The cast was rounded out by some stellar characters actors, including the always amazing Una O'Connor, the frequently villanous Henry Daniell (though not in this one), and John Williams (who had played Audrey Hepburn's chaffeur father in Wilder's SABRINA, playing Laughton's law partner in this one).
Unlike the three leads, Billy Wilder was not suffering from any kind of lull in his career when he made this film. He had, first as a screenwriter and then as a director, been marching from triumph to triumph for the previous twenty years, and would continue to do so for another ten years. The movie was untypical Wilder, however. Along with Preston Sturges, Wilder is arguably the greatest writer of comedy scripts in the history of film (he had cowriters, but their primary function was to correct his Germanicisms, to polish his rough English; Wilder supplied the ideas and action). In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, however, although adapting an Agatha Christie original, and adding a huge number of Wilderian touches, he largely is working from someone else's work. Wilder virtually always wrote completely original stories.
A lot of people love the plot of this one, and especially the twists, but I have to say that I find this somewhat artificial, and some of the least appealing parts of the film. What I do delight in is the interplay between the various characters, the chemistry between the actors and actresses, the dozens of little touches and transitions that Wilder makes while working within the limitations of someone else's story.
But most of all, this film is great because Charles Laughton was able to find one last, great role before his career came to an end.
58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
Elsa Lanchester is brilliant as the nurse for the acerbic barrister, newly home from the hospital after suffering a heart attack; nevertheless, he continues to smoke cigars and drink brandy whenever he can be skillful enough to hide them from the ever watchful Miss Plimsill (Lanchester). Tyrone Power is superb as the charming, disingenuous ne'er-do-well, unable to settle down after the War, and inventing egg beaters that beat AND separate the yolk from the white, and other dubious household necessities. Marlene Dietrich makes a Grand Entrance, and promptly puzzles Sir Wilfrid beyond speech, with her apparent cool, collected behaviour upon hearing her husband is going to be charged with the murder of Emily French, a rich older widow befriended by Power when he assisted her in the selection of a hat. The trial is the real action and centerpiece of the movie. but I enjoyed the byplay between Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsill even more...upon emerging from the car when he first comes home, Miss Plimsill reminds him to "Take teeny weeny steps, Sir Wilfrid, remember, we had a teeny weeny heart attack..." to which he replies: "Oh shut up." And his threats (after she confiscates some cigars he was smuggling in his cane) "I'll do it some dark night when her back is turned; I'll plunge her thermometer between her shoulder blades..." There are many unexpected twists here, and the ending is a real shocker, a complete surprise, and quite satisfying. Great performances by an exceptional cast, and as always, IMHO, Laughton steals the show.
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2006
This is one of the best "trial movies" ever made. It's an outstanding film that is just as good today as it was almost 50 years ago when it was released in the theaters. The shocking ending caused quite a stir back then, too.
The only part of the movie I thought looked dated and unrealistic was Tyrone Power's character being able to interrupt the trial with outbursts and not be reprimanded for it. There is no way that would be tolerated, at least today.
Otherwise, it's a pretty solid film with a good cast that includes two fascinating characters played by actors who know how to entertain: Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.
Laughton, who plays Power's defense attorney, grabs the spotlight in the story but Dietrich almost steals the movie in her role as Power's wife. Laughton's dialog is terrific throughout, bringing a number of laughs to this serious film. He's just a joy to watch. Dietrich is even more riveting but just doesn't have anywhere near the same amount of screen time as Laughton.
Not to be overlooked is Elsa Lanchester, playing Laughton's nurse. She, too, demonstrates her comedic talent and significantly adds to the fun of watching this film.
If you like some fine drama, storyline twists, a little humor thrown in and great acting and dialog, this is a classic film to check out.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2007
Dietrich never had much good to say about this film; she didn't like the set, thought Power inadequate and was generally turned off by it. I think probably she was disappointed that the public didn't respond with the praise she felt she deserved, in her "transformation" scene. We can look back on it now and see that she did a good, professional job. But then, that's what makes this courtroom whodunnit drama so fine: the high level of performance by all the actors involved. You can count them all one by one: Agatha Christie for the story; Billy Wilder for at least half the screenplay; Charles Laughton in one of his best roles and supported by his wife the excellent comedienne Elsa Lanchester; the best English character actors in the business, and Dietrich in probably her least sympathetic -- and therefore most remarkable -- performance. As to Tyrone Power? He played the part of an ex-RAF guy, drifting from job to job and mostly living off his wife; a sleaze-ball seller of novelty egg-beaters, door-to-door who preys on lonely women. In other words, the kind of guy who could only get by on his looks. Power had much more than his looks to get by on, and here, the rest is acting. Marlene probably just had somebody else in mind for the role of Lawrence Vole.
This play was a hit for a very long time for Patricia Jessel, in London, and one can only imagine the intrigue Dietrich must have resorted to to get the role for herself. Billy Wilder's wife is reported to have called Dietrich "a whore," (how many Hollywood wives must have said the same?)but in all probability it was only because both Marlene and Billy came out of Pre-War Berlin and Vienna and as expatriates spent a great deal of time talking intimately about the project, in German. After von Sternberg, Dietrich considered herself not merely an actress and star, but a participant in the artistic creation of the enterprise. Probably it was their artistic intimacy (and their understanding about sexuality) that produced A FOREIGN AFFAIR too. But this film is remarkable in two telling ways; it is witty not just in dialogue, but in camera use, and most of all, in pace. Unlike many English films of the period, the story is told with terrific speed. A sense of urgency permeates the story. The surface of WITNESS crackles with a dry, ironic electrical tension. They really don't make movies like this anymore. They can't.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2006
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
This film is a remarkable, unforgettable work of art in so many ways. Director Billy Wilder and a brilliant cast of actors gave "Witness for the Prosecution" every element of a superb movie. The film is a highly suspenseful courtroom drama, saturated with plot twists and surprises which do not let up until the very end. I have never seen another movie in which the element of suspense is so brilliantly done-the plot twists leave the viewer captivated and perplexed until all the loose ends come together in the film's unforgettable climax. Aside from the drama, "Witness for the Prosecution" has numerous bits of comedy interspersed throughout the storyline, which complement the film's enjoyability very much and do not in any way detract from its dramatic impact. The performances of the actors and their interaction with each other are done flawlessly. Charles Laughton leads the cast, starring in one of his last film roles as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a crotchety old English barrister, who agrees to defend Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power, who also died shortly after the film was made) on a charge of murder. The case against Vole seems open-and-shut, as even his own wife (played by Marlene Dietrich) agrees to testify against him. But as we learn in the course of the film, there is much more to Leonard Vole and his wife Christine than first meets the eye, and just when you think you know how the story will end, the plot veers off in a new direction and the viewer is kept guessing until the final credits roll. For quality of acting, a great storyline, suspense, and great entertainment value, "Witness for the Prosecution" simply can't be beat. Every element of a great film is present here in abundance. Suffice it to say that, in my humble opinion, this movie represents the pinnacle of filmmaking, and was never surpassed before or since. Pure, undiluted cinematic genius.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2007
Format: VHS Tape
"Witness for the Prosecution" is a first rate courtroom drama with razor sharp direction by Billy Wilder and a cast to die for. As the plot opens, "nice guy" Tyrone Power stands accused of murdering a wealthy widow. Unemployed and shiftless, he reminded this reviewer of Ray Milland in "Dial M for Murder". TP was the last known person to see the demised alive, has a shaky alibi-and is in the lady's will for big bucks! TP turns in desperation to big shot London lawyer Charles Laughton. In fact, Scotland Yard busts him in CL's office! Most have already commented on the lively courtroom drama but this reviewer admired the out of court sparring too as Laughton and his colleagues prepare for trial. Just out of the hospital, CL is perfect as the curmudgeonly and crafty barrister, even if he does tear up most of his scenes. His tart banter with his nurse (Elsa Lanchester) is softened by the knowledge that she was his real life wife. There are at least 3 huge plot twists to WFP, leading this observer to write a concise review in the interests of not divulging the ending. That leads us to female lead Marlene Dietrich: She is central to those twists- watch her closely! MD played 30 movies from 1930-1965; was she ever better than here? Hollywood took notice of WFP: It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton) and Best Supporting Actress (Lanchester), though winning none. Dietrich was ignored by the Academy but nominated for Best Actress by the Golden Globes. How many times were husband and wife nominated together? WFP is filmed is beautiful black and white-a lost art-and features true economy of sets, perhaps reflecting its' stage origins. This review tried to maintain an aura of mystery about the ending; there is a good deal more suspense than implied here. Like the header states, WFP is a winner from the old school -one that has long since been out of session.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2007
The film is based on Agatha Christie's story with the enormous twist not on the last page but on the last line. Billy Wilder's direction is perfect and all actors get it right. Charles Laughton is absolutely superb; he has the best lines and scenes and he brings the wit, intelligence, and the heart to the film. Marlene Dietrich is perfect playing not one but three roles, convincingly transforming from one character to another, from the present to the past. This is not just a good mystery but a classic of the courtroom genre and a very enjoyable film even after you know the ending. "Witness for the Prosecutionis" is one of my favorite Agatha Christie's screen adaptations.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
"I'll snatch her thermometer," snarls the aging, portly, brilliant, irascible London barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, just back in his office after spending time in a hospital recovering from a heart attack, "and plunge it between her shoulder blades!"
In Witness for the Prosecution, based on an Agatha Christie story and popular stage play, Sir Wilfred (Charles Laughton) is referring to his personal nurse and attendant, the chirpy and determined Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Sir Wilfred has strict instructions to give up everything he holds dearest, namely brandy, cigars and the excitement of criminal defense cases. Nurse Plimsoll is there to see that he does, as well as to give him his injections, make sure he swallows his pills and tuck him in for his afternoon naps. In an effort to sneak a cigar that first day back in his office, Sir Wilfred finds himself intrigued by the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Vole is a charming, too charming, man whom we don't quite trust. He has been charged with murdering a rich, silly woman...who coincidentally changed her will in Vole's favor a week before her death. Vole stands to become a very wealthy man. There is means, motive and opportunity, and for Sir Wilfred, there is a challenge. Vole swears he's innocent, but his story is not altogether plausible. His only hope, and a shaky one it is, is the testimony of his German wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich). She has supplied an alibi, which cannot be verified, but at least she cannot be forced to testify against her husband. Then, when the marriage is found to be invalid, who should decide to become a witness for he prosecution? Sir Wilfred is mortified but even more determined to save his client.
The case, full of startling twists, legal shenanigans, first-rate performances and vivid characters, ends with a typically Agatha Christie surprise. Some argue that Christie perhaps was weak as a writer, but peerless as a storyteller, able to construct mystery plot puzzles that consistently stumped her readers until the last chapter. With Billy Wilder directing and Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, an old pro, providing the screenplay, Christie once again gives a surprise twist that leaves us open-mouthed, yet smiling at her cleverness. Thanks to Wilder and Kurnitz, we also have a conclusion that involves Sir Wilfred and Nurse Plimsoll that is immensely satisfying. If only there had been a sequel.
The four leads do marvelous jobs. In a way, the movie is about two relationships, not just one. There is the relationship between Vole and his wife. They met when Vole was a sergeant stationed in Germany right after WWII. He met Christine when she was earning money entertaining in a dive for soldiers. We see some of this in flashback. With Vole's opportunistic charm and Christine's cool manner, it's difficult to determine who, if either of them, is using whom, or to what degree love enters the picture. Christine's first entrance is memorable. Says Sir Wilfred to a group of fellows awaiting Mrs. Vole, "Be prepared for hysterics and even a fainting spell. Better have smelling salts handy and a nip of brandy." Then in walks Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole, with perfect assurance. "I do not think that will be necessary," she says to Sir Wilfred. "I never faint because I am not sure that I will fall gracefully and I never use smelling salts because they puff up the eyes. I am Christine Vole."
In the second relationship, Sir Wilfred and Nurse Plimsoll provide the acerbic and mutually bullying comic relief for the movie. The two actors, however, married in real life, manage to develop a touching inter-dependence. It's not just a smile they give as at the end, but also a modest lump in the throat.
And personally, I was delighted to see Henry Daniell in a substantial secondary role. He plays Mayhew, the solicitor who brings Vole to Sir Wilfred. Daniell could look like he was sneering with disdain even if he was just admiring the view. He played some wonderfully upper-class cads and villains in a lot of so-so movies. He also was a first-rate actor, who, given the chance, could also play serious, concerned men, the kind you wouldn't mind having for a friend. He does a fine job here.
The movie, filmed in black and white, looks very good in the DVD transfer. There are no extras to speak of.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2005
Format: VHS Tape
Charles Laughton is utterly brilliant as acerbic, splashy and celebrated English barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts in Billy Wilder's terrific "Witness for the Prosecution". The irascible Sir Wilfrid has just returned home after a two month convalescence following a heart attack. He arrives attached at the hip with nurse Miss Plimsoll played by a chatty Elsa Lanchester. Sir Wilfrid has been prohibited from drinking, smoking and practicing law in any stressful high profile cases.
Laughton is visited by a solicitor friend seeking advice in a case involving Tyrone Power playing sketchy playboy type, Leonard Vole. Vole has been implicated in the bludgeoning death of an elderly and wealthy widow Emily Jane French. The married Vole had been wooing the widow hoping for financial backing for his invention. Initially Laughton's inclination is to follow doctor's orders and refer the case to his trusted associate played by John Williams. After interviewing Power, he is intrigued convinced of his innocence and decides to take the case. His contention that Power has no motive for the killing is dashed when he discovers that the widow has left him 80,000 pounds.
Power's only alibi is the testimony of his German born actress wife Christine played by Marlene Dietrich, that he was home at the established time of the murder. Laughton questions Dietrich and learns that her marriage to Power is illegal and that she is actually a bigamist, being already married, Her cool demeanor and abrasive personality forces him to dismiss her as a potential witness for the defense.
In the courtroom, compelling circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecutor, English character actor Torin Thatcher makes things look grim for Power. Much to the surprise of Laughton and his associate Mr. Brogan-Moore, Dietrich is called as a witness for the prosecution. She skewers Power by failing to corroborate his alibi, dooming him.
Miraculously, later that evening, the night before the closing arguments, Laughton is tipped off to the presence of incriminating letters written by Dietrich which will exonerate Power and cast suspicion on her. With letters in hand, Laughton tears apart Dietrich on the witness stand and everyone now anxiously awaits the verdict.
The verdict, however doesn't signal the end of the Agatha Christie inspired flick, as numerous plot twists at the conclusion enhance the reputation of this film as a timeless classic.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2005
I, myself, am not a fan of Agatha Christie's or of any of her followers; I rarely find the strength to keep up with all the clues and the various witnesses, lawyers, cross-examinations and objections which all lead up to the inevitable conclusion that, well, The Butler Did It. I can certainly understand the appeal in this kind of puzzle-movie; it just never appealed to me. To me the main problem with this kind of stories is that usually, more emphasis is put on the clues than on the characters - and so, when the real murderer is finally revealed, I say: "well, how about that?" - I simply don't care.
But in every genre there are always some creations that transcend the genre. Witness for the Prosecution stands as a true masterpiece among the Whodunit murder mysteries, one that will be pure ecstasy to fans of the genre, but is also a fantastic creation on any level and in any standard. This one proves just my point, that a clever story with a lot of characters and a lot of clues and misguiding clues just isn't enough; Christie's play is masterful, of course, and the twist at the end is one of the great classic shockers of cinema, one that matches modern classics like The Usual Suspects and Memento, if not transcends them; but it took more than the story to make that ending work. The reason it all works so well is because the characters are so captivating. That is thanks to two elements - first, Billy Wilder's (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd., The Seven Year Itch) masterful direction, and an ensemble of fantastic actors, all of whom bring their characters to life; Charles Laughton is beyond brilliant as the aging, ailing, wily solicitor, and Tyrone Power is electrifying and fascinating as his client. Most of all the diva Marlene Dietrich grants a truly show-stopping performance, and steals the show from the rest of the cast - proving just how great she really was.
By far the greatest trial drama ever made, and one of the greatest murder mysteries, it took the combined talents of Christie, Wilder and the fantastic cast to create such amazing drama in the courtroom alone; Witness for the Prosecution is basically an ensemble piece that is no more than a theatre production, but Wilder uses the full powers that he has at his disposal as a film director - close-ups, music, cinematography, lighting - to their full potential; and thus once again it is proven that he is one of the most underrated directors in history. This is a classic that deserves to be remembered with the very best films of all time.