Ten Reasons to Catch Witness for the Prosecution
The logic among film fanatics states that you should watch mystery movies twice: the first time to appreciate the shock of the big reveal and the second time to see how artfully the truth is disguised. But if you've already seen Billy Wilder's 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution twice, you probably realize that it's a treat even if you know this Agatha Christie-penned mystery through and though. Thus, you have no good excuse for skipping this week's KCET Sunday night movie, but just in case you need some additional convincing, here are ten reasons to tune in. Like I said, Agatha Christie. Hey, KCET user base! Do you enjoy watching old people on screen but wish maybe they spent more crime exposing the criminal misdeeds of the younger generation? You're in luck! Decades before Matlock started the off-white suit craze, Christie was sending Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot to investigate all manner of murder. Witness for the Prosecution, based on a 1925 short story, features neither Marple nor Poirot but instead Sir Wilfrid Robarts as the AARP-aged sleuth. Don't worry: He has the exact lack of social graces necessary to make you feel right at home this one-off Christie adventure.
Charles Laughton. Praise the man for his acting (as the titular lead in The Private Life of Henry VIII, among many others) or for his direction (the ahead-of-its-time The Night of the Hunter). You can't go wrong, and Laughton seems to genuinely enjoy himself playing the irascible lawyer who snorts, scowls and searches for the truth in this courtroom mystery. Part of Laughton's apparent glee in filming Witness for the Prosecution could have stemmed from his many scenes with...
Elsa Lanchester. Not only Charles Laughton's wife but also an estimable actor in her own right, Lanchester plays Miss Plimsoll, the simple-minded nurse charged with keeping Robarts in good health and therefore away from work. Guess how that works out! Yes, hijinx aplenty, but Laughton and Lanchester's on-screen banter sparkles in a way few strangers -- and few married acting couples -- could match. In fact, while adapting the stage play script for the big screen, writers penciled in additional opportunities for Laughton and Lanchester to interact.
Tyrone Power's last stand. He survived many a swordfight on screen, but the actor with the impossibly cool name did not, in fact, live to see another battle beyond the one that goes down in this film. After completing Witness, Power died of a heart attack in Spain while filming his follow-up, Solomon and Sheba. Looking at his overall career, Witness isn't exactly a representative role for this longtime action star: Accused of murder but claiming his innocence, his character has little to do but sit and watch while Robarts agues in court. But it's a nice reminder that Power wasn't just a swashbuckler for hire.
Marlene Dietrich. Yeah, I've been holding out on you. Four selling points in, and I'm only now getting to one of the greatest stars of all time. Short of just telling you that Dietrich such a fantastic job that the quality of her performance sneaks up on you, I can't get into it. This is, after all, a mystery. However, my hesitance should itself be incentive: I wouldn't hold back unless it was worth discovering on your own.
The only ending we have! I quote the trailer, where Laughton weirdly speaks as himself and not his movie character: "You'll talk about this picture, all right, but you'll never tell the ending to your friends, because you won't want to spoil their excitement and their fun."
He wasn't kidding around. To drive the point home, a voiceover plays during the end credits as well to remind you to shut up about the ending on grounds that this truly is the sort of movie where foreknowledge detracts from the experience. So beyond this paragraph, beware of spoilers. But before I hit that enter key, two quick bits. One: Why don't actors break the fourth wall in movie trailers more often? I like that. Two: This trailer is surely the only context where Charles Laughton promises to deliver "a series of climaxes" and it's still an all-audiences environment. It's all the funnier because, well, the connotations plus the fact that Laughton looks like a human version of Garfield the cat.
A Wilder sort of Hitchcock. If the hush-hush nature surrounding this film reminds you a bit of Alfred Hitchcock's similar treatment of Psycho, you're not alone. Back in the 50s, viewers frequently mistook the film for being one of Hitchcock's -- and Hitchcock's 1947 film The Paradine Case for being one of Wilder's.
That thing I couldn't talk about earlier. Okay, you're cool, right? You've either seen Witness for the Prosecution already or you're prepared to have the surprises ruined? Good. Now, here's how committed Wilder and the film's cast were to keeping the ending under wraps: According to Robert Osbourne's Turner Classic Movies spiel, it may have cost Marlene Dietrich an Academy Award nomination. Simply put, no one talked about the fact that she played both German actress Christine Helm and the crass Cockney informant who delivers a valuable piece of evidence to Laughton. (Check her out in the above posted video clip, starting at the 1:10 mark. She's unrecognizable, even if her accent does sound slightly off.) Now that is commitment to a role.
Which isn't to say that Dietrich was modest. Oscar, schmoscar. According to IMDb, in order to allow Dietrich to show off her famously beautiful legs, Wilder tacked on the flashback dance sequence involving 145 extras, 38 stunt men and costing $90,000.
Barristers, hold your tongues. Another plot point that's worth considering, especially if you've ever practiced law in Britain (and maybe if you have in the U.S. too): While British law forbids a person from being forced to testify against his or her spouse, there's a gap in logic for which we must either blame Wilfrid Robarts or Agatha Christie. Because Power's character thought he was legally married to Dietrich's, it could have been legally argued that spousal privilege still applied. The point is never raised. (And by the way, if you did practice law in Britain, do you have one of those cool wigs? Can I borrow it?)