Sunday, November 15, 2020

‘Witness for the Prosecution’ 1957


Marlene Dietrich & Charles Laughton, fascinating adversaries in "Witness for the Prosecution."

Witness for the Prosecution is the combined talents of two razor sharp artistic minds, Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder. Based on the play from mystery queen Christie’s short story, director/screenwriter Wilder expands on the premise in this terrifically told adaptation. Agatha is aces with her ingenious premise and Billy brings his smart dialogue and telling character detail here. Both are great storytellers and this ’57 version of Witness is still the best of the bunch.

Love how the ads hyped up thrills for what was a smart courtroom drama.

This Witness is an addictively watchable courtroom drama about a shady charmer on trial for murder, with an older wife who may or may not be on his side. More important than the mystery itself—who is most wily, the legendary lawyer with a bad heart, or the suspect’s wife, who seems to have no heart?

Elsa Lanchester & Charles Laughton make a great team as the bickering nurse and barrister. Elsa's character was a Wilder addition to "Witness."

Charles Laughton is great fun to watch as Sir Wilfred, Witness’ irascible lawyer. Wilfred, recovering from a heart attack, is saddled with an officious nurse, Miss Plimsoll, cheerfully played by Elsa Lanchester. Mr. and Mrs. Laughton’s bickering banter offers great comic relief in this courtroom drama. Wilder cited Laughton as his favorite actor to work with, marveling at his inventiveness for characterization. I’d say they were perfect for each other, as Wilder was great at bringing out the best in actors, and Laughton benefitted from directorial restraint. Laughton is most believable as a lawyer possibly facing his last hurrah. Only 58 at the time, he looks very frail and older, much like Spencer Tracy did in his last decade or two. In fact, Charles died five years after this film was released. Laughton gives it his all here and is funny and ferocious.

Marlene Dietrich as the mystery woman, in an Edith Head suit reminiscent
of the designs she created for Alfred Hitchcock's blondes.

The other outstanding performance, surprisingly, is from Marlene Dietrich. Considered a great persona rather than a great actress, Marlene’s cool demeanor is perfect as the seemingly cold-hearted wife. Dietrich and Laughton make a great pair, polar opposites in acting styles, and at odds as characters. As Christine Vole, the wife of the accused, Marlene is the master of restraint. In her “big” moments, Dietrich rises to the occasion. Marlene’s Christine is a character whose motivations are peeled back throughout the film and give Dietrich great opportunities as an actress. Dietrich is deliberately deadpan and snarky in her first scenes, then has some bittersweet moments in a flashback, as Christine’s frosty demeanor begins to thaw for future husband, Leonard. As the story unfolds, Christine is anything but the aloof wife. The plot twists in the last act were urged to be kept secret by the filmmakers, and some felt this cost Dietrich an Oscar nomination. Realistically, I question that, as Marlene was no longer a full-time Hollywood actress, but her performance definitely rated one.

Dietrich recalls her WWII era & gender-bending fashion in a "Witness" flashback.

 My only caveat with Dietrich in Witness is her appearance. Marlene was the forerunner to today’s actresses, whose faces are pulled tighter than a drum. During filming Marlene was 56. With her wigs and skin pulls, she looked neither old nor young, but “somewhere between 40 and death,” as Mame opines of bosom buddy Vera Charles. Still, Dietrich’s far too old in the flashback scene, with her as the sex bomb performer, and Power as the “young” soldier. Watching a second time, I got past her drag queen looks in the flashback, with her measured responses to Power's character, who’s trying to win her over. Dietrich projects a quiet strength beneath the cool veneer. Edith Head, an Alfred Hitchcock favorite, designs tailored costumes for Marlene Dietrich that cause the film seem even more Hitch-like!

Marlene has some sweet moments in her flashback scene, despite wearing the most obvious wig since Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity!"

Hollywood’s fun house mirror regarding age is one of my movie pet peeves. Dietrich refers to the victim as that “old woman” even though they were nearly the same age. At 22, Ruta Lee was the other woman, paired with Power at age 43, and up against Dietrich at 56! Laughton refers to Power as “young man,” which only calls attention to Ty’s age.

Dietrich w/Tyrone Power, from a "Witness" promo shoot that looks like they're for a pulp novel cover. Marlene's "ageless"appearance seems to have inspired today's divas!

Tyrone Power, as murder suspect Leonard Vole, is supposed to be boyishly charming and handsome—also, a ne’er-do-well, which he freely admits. This is a tricky type of role to pull off and still retain audience sympathy. Power had that quality as an actor. However, Leonard, as a recent vet, should be 30-ish. Ty was 43 and frankly looked at least a decade older. This makes his character seem like a case of arrested development. Still, Power was still box office and was cast after William Holden turned the role down. Richard Burton, who was not box office at the time, but a decade younger and far more talented, would have been brilliant as the charismatic cad.

Tyrone Power's first close-up as charming young cad Leonard Vole. Ty was just 43.

Witness for the Prosecution would be Power's last completed role and he died of a massive heart attack on the set of Solomon and Sheba. It's a shock to see Power in close up the first time in Witness. Here, his once lean figure and good looks now look bloated and slightly jowly. With dark bags under his eyes and black hair slicked back, Ty looks like he's about to turn into Mr. Hyde in his more dramatic moments. Power acts the charming boy well enough, but his dissipation undercuts him. In the subtle moments, Power’s performing is quite good, such as his smarmy expression at the finale, when Leonard’s wife pleads with him not to leave her. For his big dramatic moments, Power falls short, he's just not enough of a grand performer to pull them off, and it’s just bad acting. 

Tyrone Power's attempts at bravura acting make him look like Mr. Hyde! 

Power had been a top star right out of the box for over 20 years. Ty was rather like Rock Hudson in that he was well-liked, unpretentious, and very professional. Like Hudson, Ty's great looks were off-set by a genuine warmth and low-key charm, and un-self conscious about his physical appeal. Ty and Rock yearned to stretch artistically and be more than the handsome hero. Both did stage work and also performed in passion projects that went against their image: Power in '47's Nightmare Alley and Hudson in '66's Seconds. Both were bleak films that were dumped into theaters and bombed. They are now cult classics. 

What a shame Witness for the Prosecution wasn’t filmed a decade earlier, Marlene and Power would have been perfectly cast. This would have been the era that Wilder and Dietrich teamed for A Foreign Affair and Tyrone Power was trying to broaden his range as a villain Nightmare Alley. But alas, the play version of Witness hadn’t been written yet!

What do they see that's so frightening?!

The characters, from the aging barrister and all his ailments, right down to the housekeeper and murder victim, are funny, quirky, and human. This is what makes this straight forward courtroom drama interesting. Billy Wilder marveled at Christie's model of construction, but astutely noted her writing was flat when it came to characterization. And this was one of Wilder's gifts as a screenwriter. Much of the memorable detail in Witness originated with this film adaptation.

Ruta Lee is light years away from her brassy blonde persona as the other woman.
 Love the blase look on Power's face as Leonard's wife begs him not to leave her.

A superb cast of British character actors are scene stealers here: Henry Daniell, John Williams, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher, Francis Compton, Phillip Tonge, and especially cranky Una O’ Connor and droll Norma Varden as the victim, Mrs. French. The lone young star is Ruta Lee in her brunette starlet phase and she’s pretty innocuous, but figures in the finale. Witness got six Oscar nominations, four in major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.

Another Best Director Oscar nomination for Billy Wilder.

Interesting that two years later, similarly Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Murder was also based on a real life crime that centered on a duplicitous married couple with an army background. Like Anatomy, there’s not much mystery as to WHO dunnit, but there’s more here than meets the eye of barrister’s blinding monocle. Wilder’s take on Witness of the Prosecution is still the winning version.

FYI: I put my movie overflow on my public FB movie page. 

Check it out & join!


The makeup man got a bit carried away. Her hand looks like it belongs to the bride of Mr. Hyde!


1 comment:

  1. The Accused with Jodie Foster owes a lot to Anatomy of a Murder.

    Love Witness for the Prosecution and the supporting cast: Daniell, Williams, Varden.