Witness for the Prosecution [VHS]
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Billy Wilder cowrote and directed this brilliant 1957 mystery based on Agatha Christie's celebrated play about an aging London barrister (Charles Laughton) who's preparing to retire when he takes the defense in the most vexing murder case of his distinguished career. In his final completed film (he died of a heart attack less than a year later), Tyrone Power plays the prime suspect in the murder of a wealthy widow, and Marlene Dietrich plays the wife of the accused, whose testimony--and true identity--holds the key to solving the case. A classic of courtroom suspense, Witness for the Prosecution is one of those movies with enough double-crossing twists to keep the viewer guessing right up to the very end, when yet another surprise is deftly revealed. This being a Billy Wilder film, the dialogue is first-rate and the acting superb, with both Laughton and his offscreen wife Elsa Lanchester (playing the barrister's pesty nurse) winning Academy Awards for their performances. Although later films would concoct even more complicated courtroom scenarios, this remains one of the best films of its kind and a model for all those films that followed its lead. --Jeff Shannon
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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.
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.
This new DVD version of WFTP is excellent, a big improvement on the earlier MGM DVD. It's been remastered in high definition, so it looks and sounds much better than before. (I can't speak for the new Blu-Ray version, but I'll assume it's at least as good as this DVD--why wouldn't it be?) This is a real upgrade of a classic thriller with Billy Wilder's excellent direction and career-best performances from Power, Laughton, and especially Dietrich. It really is one of the finest courtroom dramas ever filmed. Highly recommended.
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