Thursday 10 September 2015

Movie Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

A masterful adaptation of Agatha Christie's play, Witness For The Prosecution is a playful and taut courtroom drama, filled with compelling characters, sharply defined twists and turns, and a memorable Charles Laughton performance.

Celebrated defence lawyer Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) has just returned to his practice after a spell in hospital due to ill health. Although hassled by his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) and advised to not accept any difficult files, Sir Wilfrid cannot resist. He agrees to take on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who is accused of murdering an old rich widow, Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden). She had a crush on Leonard, and he was the main benefactor in her will, inheriting a large sum of money upon her death.

Chief Inspector Hearne (Philip Tonge) arrests Leonard based on circumstantial evidence, but Leonard insists he is innocent and that his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will support his alibi. Meanwhile, Emily's housekeeper Janet McKenzie (Una O'Connor) never liked Leonard and has damaging testimony that he was arguing with the victim the night of the murder. The trial starts, and Sir Wilfrid appears to be making good progress in casting doubt on the case made by the Crown prosecutor Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher). But suddenly the case is transformed when the prosecution calls a surprise witness, and Sir Wilfrid will need to be at his best to counteract devastating testimony.

Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, Witness For The Prosecution is a delight. A courtroom drama filled with personality, humour and an undercurrent of unease that something is just not quite right in the case against Leonard Vole, the film contains plenty of surprises to maintain interest and easily sustains the two hours of running time. Crisp black and white photography, fluid camera movements within the courtroom and stark shadows and contrasts infuse the film with a restive dynamic.

At the middle of it all is Sir Wilfrid, a man born to question authority, question his own clients and question adversarial witnesses, usually as he strolls to an easy courtroom triumph. A large part of the film's appeal comes from Sir Wilfrid suddenly realizing that this case is much more of a challenge than even he realized. When the astonishing witness is followed by startling new evidence, even Sir Wilfrid struggles to map out the endgame, and his uncertainty heightens the carefully cultivated sense that in this case, anything can happen and the truth will be incredibly difficult to tease out. Charles Laughton has a blast with the role, creating in Sir Wilfrid the genius buffoon huffing his way past medical advise to occupy his zone of comfort in the middle of an arduous court battle.

Christie and Wilder provide the three central characters with plenty of colourful context and interest that seeps into the courtroom. Sir Wilfrid heads-up an entourage of assistants, but it is his running mental battle with his dogged nurse Miss Plimsoll that most taxes his abilities. Meanwhile, there is obvious tension between Leonard and his wife Christine, perhaps partially attributable to her German origins, and maybe because Christine resented Leonard's liaison with the now deceased Mrs. French. But as the trial progresses, the relationship between the accused and his spouse emerges as a tight knot, convoluted in construction, intent and implications.

In his last completed role and just a year before his death at age 44, Tyrone Power gives Leonard Vole persuasiveness hampered by a selective recollection of the truth. Marlene Dietrich is a dark and spectral figure, adept at saying one thing while her body language hints at quite another.

Witness For The Prosecution is an exquisite film, dominating the courtroom with commanding arguments to easily win its status as a classic.

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