Billy Wilder, 1957
Starring: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton
"I am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders."
A well-known barrister, the aged and rotund Sir Wilfrid Robarts, is recovering from some time spent in the hospital. He is accompanied by a stern nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who forbids him from partaking in difficult cases, drinking, smoking, or eating rich food. But before she can voice many objections, he has taken on a new client — Leonard Vole — a man accused of killing a wealthy, older woman. Mrs. Emily French was a widow that Vole claimed to be friends with on account of her loneliness. He was also hoping to get some funding for his inventions. Vole is the number one suspect, though Sir Wilfrid is convinced of his innocence and is determined to get him a verdict of “not guilty.” But when Vole’s wife, a mysterious, unemotional German woman decides to become a witness, Sir Wilfrid smells trouble.
Based on Agatha Christie's story and play of the same name, director Billy Wilder and his co-writers enhanced the play, adding comedy and shifting the focus to Sir Wilfred as the main character. While Christie had plenty of cynicism and unpleasant characters throughout her books, Wilder also included his own sense of gloom that pervades his noir films, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, as well as The Long Weekend.
While Witness for the Prosecution is not really a film noir, I’m including it in my series anyway, because it shares a few thematic elements with noir and comes at the end of Wilder’s run of particularly grim films. First and foremost, the central plot is murder. Leonard Vole, the suspect, seemingly fits in with Hitchcock’s concept of the “wrong man,” an innocent man whose life is tampered with my fate or other ominous forces and is wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit. Vole’s wife also seems to be a typical femme fatale, a beautiful, mysterious, selfish, and motivated woman willing to double cross anyone to get what she wants. Wilder eventually reveals that he’s putting a twist on these well-loved formulas, and with pleasing results. The film ends with a voice over asking the audience not to reveal the ending, so I’m going to try not to give away too many spoilers here.
The script balances suspense and humor and feels something like Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry or Family Plot, as it is a mix of the mundane, the whimsical, and the macabre. Incredibly successful, Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Academy Awards, though Dietrich was bafflingly ignored. From the script to the acting and lovely visuals, the film has few flaws. Though Wilder was often accused of being a bland stylist in favor of robust storytelling, Witness looks great, thanks to cinematographer Russell Harlan and designer Alexander Trauner.
Trauner used much of the budget to create a believable facsimile of Old Bailey, because they were not allowed to film inside the real courthouse. Trauner regularly worked with Wilder and made a name working on Children of Paradise (1945) in occupied France, where he was forced to stay undercover due to his Judaism. He also spent a hefty amount of money creating Dietrich’s bombed out German bar, where she sings as American sailors grope her and rip her pants, trying to see more of her scintillating flesh.
Dietrich gave one of her last performances and is as great as ever. Though Hollywood stars and occasional noir actresses Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were considered for the role, Wilder chose Dietrich, who he had collaborated with previously on A Foreign Affair. She is magnificent, as always, and her strong performance lends credibility to the film’s dizzying twist ending. Dietrich’s disguise design was allegedly assisted by Orson Welles, who was well-versed in changing the appearance of his face for various film and theatre roles. The flashback scene showing how Leonard met Christine — singing in a crumbling nightclub during the war — is classic Dietrich and proves that no matter how she had aged by this point, she was still fascinating, beautiful, and charismatic.
Unlike Dietrich, actor Charles Laughton had more connections with horror than with film noir. He starred in the first, stunning adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau — Island of Lost Souls — and the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His sole turn as a director produced Night of the Hunter, a horror-noir hybrid that was lambasted at the time but has thankfully becomes recognized as a classic and as one of the greatest films ever made. Though Dietrich competes heartily with him, the film belongs to Laughton. His scenes with real-life wife Elsa Lanchester (famous for playing the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein) are pure joy as they exchange rapidly paced insults and moments of physical comedy.
Tyrone Power was in a memorable noir, Nightmare Alley, and is fittingly despicable in Witness for the Prosecution. He is smug, slimy, and two-faced, just handsome enough to be convincing as the wrongfully accused man. This was his last role, as he died of a heart attack soon after. All of the side performers are excellent as well, particularly Una O’Connor as a hearing-impaired maid and witness during the trial, the only actor from the stage play to reprise their role. O’Connor had already worked with Lanchester on Bride of Frankenstein and Witness for the Prosecution was her final film in a very long career.
Witness for the Prosecution comes highly recommended. Fans of mystery, noir, and courtroom dramas will all find something to love. And if you aren’t entertained by the dual performances of Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, then I think all hope is lost for you. Pick the film up on Blu-ray and allow Wilder to astound you yet again.