For the second time since I started writing blind spot posts I really was blindsided by a movie. I recently purchased a box set of Billy Wilder movies, all of which I had seen before, or so I thought. As I started watching Witness for the Prosecution (1957) I quickly realised I had never seen it before. To be honest I think I had had mixed it up with Double Indemnity (1944 – also directed by Billy Wilder) or Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
On release from hospital barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is ordered to take it easy by doctors and his overpowering private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa – Bride of Frankenstein – Lanchester, Laughton‘s real life spouse). Despite this, he agrees to take the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Vole has been charged with the murder of Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich, older widow who he stands to inherit a fortune from. Things are complicated when it is revealed that Voles wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) is going to be a witness for the prosecution.
Starting life as a play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution had already clocked up more than a thousand performances in the West End and on Broadway. With the help of screenwriters Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus , Wilder manages to concoct a mystery that Hitchcock would have bee proud of. The announcement at the end: “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” And the tagline on the poster: “You’ll talk about it, but please don’t tell the ending.” Aren’t that far removed from Hitchcock stunts.
A courtroom dram with lots of twists and turns is nothing new, you have probably seen countless times before, but this movie is over fifty years old, so many of the other movies we have seen have been influenced by this. Like so many Wilder movies, one of the keys to its success is the perfect casting. Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Lanchester are all brilliant but Charles Laughton is in a different world, I would go as far as to say I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. The sublime performances coupled with the measured direction allow for the near impossible task of making the twists interesting even if you see them coming. The result of this despite the pleas marketing people, viewers who know the plot aren’t disadvantaged by knowing the plot making me keen to see the movie again. And thanks to Laughton and Wilder, although far from a comedy the movie is full of funny moments.
Full of all the twists and turns you would expect from Christie coupled with the perfect pacing and brilliance of Wilder. The ending is as brilliant and perfect as you would expect of Wilder.
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