Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz
Starring: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester
Duration: 116 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Following the success of her stage play, The Mouse Trap, Agatha Christie quickly adapted one of her short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, for the stage also. Although not as successful as it’s predecessor, it was seen by Marlene Dietrich who encouraged Billy Wilder to snap up the rights and produce a big screen adaptation which was released in 1957.
Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a brilliant defence barrister returning to work after recovering from a heart attack. He is accompanied by his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (played by Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester) who pesters Sir Wilfrid constantly with her demands of rest and prohibiting him from smoking and drinking. Sir Wilfrid battles her with a barbed tongue, but you get the feeling that this in jest and he is actually quite fond of her.
Soon they are visited by Sir Wilfrid’s colleague and solicitor, Mayhew (Henry Daniell) who arrives with Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man that Mayhew explains is about to be implicated in a serious criminal matter. Sir Wilfrid stresses he can’t handle any big cases, but he takes the men to his chambers on the pretence of hearing about the case, but in reality just to enjoy a cigar away from Miss Plimsoll’s prying eyes.
A wealthy 56-year old woman, Mrs French (Norma Varden), has been murdered. Vole had previously made friends with her and had begun visiting her a couple of times per week. On the night of the murder, Vole had been with her and he has a fresh cut on his hand. As he is arrested, we learn that he had a motive as Mrs French had recently changed her will, leaving £80,000 to Vole. He doesn’t worry as he is marched out of Sir Wilfrid’s office, as is wife (Marlene Dietrich) can testify that he was home prior to the murder that night. All he needs is for her to tell the truth.
Witness for the Prosecution is a highly entertaining film, which has a genuinely unexpected twist at its conclusion. Some of the comedic elements are misjudged, but the dramatic tension in the courtroom more than makes up for this.
The performances across the board are excellent. The main cast of Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich all provide inspired performances. Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid Roberts is simultaneously rude and charming, with Laughton’s portrayal of Sir Wilfrid’s eccentric traits, including his biting sense of humour, bringing the character to life. As the accused, Tyrone Power portrays Vole’s emotional turmoil throughout his ordeal with great authority. As the film progresses, we can really see the toil that the stress of the trial has taken on Vole.
Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Christine, Vole’s wife, is one of her greatest. I have always found that Dietrich’s performances could be hit and miss, but with a good script and a masterful director such as Wilder guiding her, she can shine. Such is the case here as she effortlessly demonstrates Christine’s intelligence and charismatic influence on the male characters. Elsa Lanchester also gives a strong and likeable performance as the comic relief, Miss Plimsoll. Her on-screen chemistry with Laughton is a real highlight of the film.
As well as his typically strong direction, Billy Wilder’s script (co-written with Harry Kurnitz) is a masterclass in weaving a taunt and effective courtroom drama. Although the core narrative remains faithful to the original play, most of the dialogue was changed and new characters were added (which angered Agatha Christie). Wilder’s changes were justified when the film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards later that year.
Eureka Entertainment have brought together a nice collection of extras starting with an audio commentary from film critic Kat Ellinger telling the story of how the film was made and how it was received on release. There is also a short video interview with film scholar Neil SInyard and archival footage of Billy Wilder discussing the film with German director Volker Schlöndorff. For my money the highlight is a featurette with Simon Callow titled Monocle and Cigars. Always a highly entertaining interviewee, Callow is a lifetime Laughton fan and here he enthusiastically discusses Laughton’s work and personal life.
Witness for the Prosecution is a tightly wound mystery, highlighting Wilder’s skill, constantly and effortlessly shifting the audience’s perception of the characters and plot. Even in this day and age where twists in films are commonplace, the finale of the film with have you gasping in awe.
Witness for the Prosecution is released on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema series.
Special features include:
• 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
• Uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack
• Optional English SDH subtitles
• New and exclusive feature-length audio commentary by critic Kat Ellinger
• Monocle and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution
• A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
• Archival footage of Billy Wilder discussing Witness for the Prosecution with director Volker Schlöndorff
• A collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film scholar Henry Miller and critic Philip Kemp; a letter from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder; and rare archival imagery
• Reversible Sleeve