Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
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The headlining star, Tyrone Power, sure doesn't help them very much. He plays anguish about as smoothly as ripped sandpaper...and anguish is the unfortunate emotion he's got to play for most of the picture. Power has been accused of murdering a wealthy older woman. His wife (Marlene Dietrich) seems to be doing all she can to sell him out, appearing as...drum roll, please, drummer man...the star witness for the prosecution. Laughton is the brilliant (and ailing) English barrister defending Power. The plot twists 'n' turns a dozen ways from Sunday, just as it always does in Christie's best work.
Amongst all the talk of bloody murder, there are running gags about cigars and alcohol. More dark wit---Laughton's character's poor health might cause him to drop dead at any moment. Wilder weaved thrills and smiles as well as any director. In this, he was wise to anchor the supporting cast with mainstays of the stiff upper lip. John Williams and Ian Wolfe (Hirsch from "WKRP"), not to mention Laughton's control-freak assistant Elsa Lanchester (who was also CL's real-life wife), are bloody good.
Movies of this type have been ripped off so often that students of the "don't give away the ending" class are bound to figure it out. I did. That hardly mattered because there were STILL more surprises to come. Through all that plot, Dietrich winds up being the most fascinating character. Project back and you'll realize how well her performance works. But she & Power are merely the star attractions in 'Witness For The Prosecution'. The main dish is Charles Laughton. Considering how ironic and cynical our society has become, it's stunning that brilliant old pros like Wilder and Laughton aren't more popular today. After this movie, they've become personal heroes of mine.
Charles Laughton however, provides us with a glib chuckle as the aging defense attorney ruled by his overlord maid. A distraction that only adds to an excellent plot line.
I can't imagine another film of the genre and the era, that so wickedly entangles the essential thriller with a 'crime of passion' (oops, spot the plot killer...) gem. A classic.
A film for true movie lovers. Take it from me!
Like all Wilder films, this one is a very pleasurable viewing. Wilder manages to find a middle ground between substance and entertainment, and so this is a film that will please fans of both aspects. The film is deliriously entertaining throughout, with some truly great lines of dialogue (most of which is very quotable) and every twist adds a new level to the story. The substance comes from a multitude of angles, and themes of love, health, sacrifice and most notably, justice, are all more than prevalent. The acting is certainly of note in Witness for the Prosecution. Charles Laughton is absolutely sublime as the undermining and stubborn Wilfrid Robarts; his performance is very strong, and makes up the backbone of the film. The main supporting performance comes from Marlene Dietrich. I'm not a big fan of hers; despite having a great pair of legs, she just doesn't do anything for me, but in this film she brings sufficient coldness to her character and really makes it her own. The final main performance comes from Tyrone Power; he isn't as great as the other two, but does enough with his character to ensure he's believable. Highly recommended viewing!
Tyrone Power in his farewell film plays Leonard Vole who befriends a dotty old widow played by Norma Varden. She even rewrites her will leaving him the bulk of a very large estate. When she's murdered, Scotland Yard arrests Power.
Power's solicitor Henry Daniell retains a dream team for defense of John Williams and the recently recovered Charles Laughton. Laughton is recovering from a heart attack and against medical advice plunges into the case. Laughton also has to deal with the efforts of his assigned nurse Elsa Lanchester to keep him following doctor's advice.
The original play this was taken from concentrated completely on the Power character and the machinations of his wife. Wilder built up the character of the nurse and barrister Sir Wilfred Robards so that they almost equaled the screen time of Mr. and Mrs. Vole. So much so that Charles Laughton was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957, but lost to Alec Guinness.
Marlene Dietrich plays Mrs. Vole. She's a war bride over from Germany and she's got her own agenda going. Her performance and what her character does is the key to the whole film. Dietrich probably would have gotten an Oscar nomination herself, but due to the fact that if her performance was hyped up for Academy consideration, the element of surprise would have been lost in the film. Wilder in fact apologized to Marlene for that.
The Anglo-Saxon legal system's goal is justice. Justice is served though not quite in the way it usually is in Witness for the Prosecution.
Another thing we shall not forget is that Billy Wilder is European. He manages to keep the spirit of the film very British, with lots of humour and sarcasm. Compared to films like this one, "legal" movies from John Grisham's novels are empty and meaningless, without soul.
Mr.Wilder is the director, we know; we have Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich: what a cast! Add a superb black and white cinematography... The result is amazing, with a film where dialogues are flawless and carry everything.
Times are different now, but the atmosphere and the taste of movies like this one are impossible to find in contemporary films.
The only part of the movie I thought looked dated and unrealistic was Tyrone Power's character being able to interrupt the trial with outbursts and not be reprimanded for it. There is no way that would be tolerated, at least today.
Otherwise, it's a pretty solid film with a good cast that includes two fascinating characters played by actors who know how to entertain: Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.
Laughton, who plays Power's defense attorney, grabs the spotlight in the story but Dietrich almost steals the movie in her role as Power's wife. Laughton's dialog is terrific throughout, bringing a number of laughs to this serious film. He's just a joy to watch. Dietrich is even more riveting but just doesn't have anywhere near the same amount of screen time as Laughton.
Not to be overlooked is Elsa Lanchester, playing Laughton's nurse. She, too, demonstrates her comedic talent and significantly adds to the fun of watching this film.
If you like some fine drama, storyline twists, a little humor thrown in and great acting and dialog, this is a classic film to check out.
The movie centers around Laughton's character, an aged, feisty, and very canny English barrister (lawyer) who is in poor health and headed toward retirement. The opening of the movie is entirely Laughton's show, as he portrays a curmudgeonly and endearing character. On his first day home from the hospital, he soon takes up the defense of Leonard Vole (Power) a man who is charged with murder and up against a barrage of circumstantial evidence. Power is convincing as the honest and somewhat naive defendant, in increasingly over his head. Soon, Dietrich makes her entrance as Vole's cool German femme fatal of a wife. After a few flashbacks to set up the story of the murder case, Laughton takes up Vole's case. What ensues is a well-written and well-directed courtroom drama, in which Laughton continues to shine, delivering a convincing performance peppered with humor. Soon, the story takes a series of dramatic twists, during which Power plays his part as the beleaguered defendant to the hilt and Dietrich uses the gifts that made her a legend. By the end, the audience has been treated to an excellent drama with sensational acting.
The result is a classic, but not an icon in the sense that Christie's short story, penned twenty years earlier, would become. While it may be the best-regarded of all Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express a possible exception), the movie does not seem to have the stature it ought to have. At the end of the movie, I did not feel the same as when I read the story, and not just because I knew all along how it would turn out. With such visible talent on all fronts, I took a long look at what it was, and what was missing. The answer: Christie.
The movie is good in its own right, but from the beginning misses the crucial aspect that the original story has: the mystery. Agatha Christie is the master of suspense, and throughout the story, that suspense, that anxiousness to know what will happen next, the eagerness to know where this next twist will lead, and the shock that comes at the very end, were what the story was all about. The direction the movie went, the legal thriller, substituted drama for mystery, and while the movie only added to the story, changing very little of what Christie wrote, the movie lost the grip that only she could create. Christie treated the courtroom proceedings (the centerpiece of the movie) with brevity, focusing on the intrigue surrounding the case. Also, the Hollywood ending overdoes it a little bit, and deprives the most important plot twist of some of its its emotional impact.
That said, however, the movie is still a classic. Fortunately, the heart of the story was still very strong, with a unique plot and rich characters, which were taken advantage of by Wilder and the cast, respectively. And, as it turns out, the movie is a good complement to the story. To those who have only seen the movie, the story should be read to truly appreciate the missing value of the mystery. To those who have read the story, the movie nails the characters (particularly Dietrich's Mrs. Vole). All in all, I give this movie a 9 out of 10, and would gladly see it again.
I'm not sure I have the ability to adequately praise this film. The original short story(rather unremarkable, actually)has been expanded into a magnificent example of Hollywood entertainment at its best. In addition to perhaps the finest line-up of character actors ever assembled(next to Cukor's David Copperfield, that is), we get Laughton and Dietrich at the top of their form. The person who criticised Lanchester's performance as "annoying" missed the point entirely. Miss Plimsoll is meant to be annoying! Also, what's with all the bad-mouthing of Tyrone Power? "Hammy"; "terrible"; "worst performance ever". These are the perceptive IMDb reviews? Only one of you got it right: it's hammy because Leonard Vole is the one acting, not Power! For 95% of the film, the character is dissembling, only showing his true colors at the end. Of course it looks hammy: Vole isn't a born actor like his wife. And to all those know-it-alls who called this film mediocre and predictable, I look forward to your upcoming film projects which I'm sure will be paragons of excellence and worthy to be set alongside classics of the golden age.
Agatha Christie's story has more twists and turns than a roller coaster and this provides a strong foundation for the movie. But the actors give life to the characters. I haven't seen the 1982 version, but I'll admit to a bias for Marlene Dietrich. She and Tyrone Power pull just the right punches.
It's a mystery, of course. But a top notch one. So if you want only to dabble in the genre, this is the one to try. (If you like mysteries, it goes without saying that you must see it.) Moreover, this is one B&W movie for people who don't like B&W movies.
Everyone in the cast performs masterfully. Especially charming is the interaction between Laughton's character and his nurse played by his wife of then 28 years, Elsa Lanchester. They go back and forth at each other with Nurse Pimsoll insisting that Sir Wilfred keep his rigid schedule of medications and him treating her like a jailer with hilarious one liners at the poor woman's expense. Only a long married couple could do this feature length banter so well. If Nightmare Alley didn't convince you that Tyrone Power was more than a pretty face, this film will. Likewise, Marlene Dietrich is much more than a blue angel and a fine figure of a woman at age 56.
Notice all of the little touches. How Sir Wilfred seems to be ignoring testimony in court by counting out his pills, only to stand up and ask insightful questions when his turn comes. Plus this film really shows that nothing is off the record, even if the judge says that it is - the jury hears and sees everything. Sir Wilfred plays on that fact.
Great acting, great direction, great story - it doesn't get any better than this. Thus I give this a solid 10/10. And one irony - Power's character mentions several times about Sir Wilfred's heart, but it is Tyrone Power himself who will be dead of a heart attack by the end of the following year. Sadly, this is his last completed film.
Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is a salesman who meets an elderly, wealthy woman (Norma Varden) and gains her affections - much to the dislike and mistrust of her servant (Una O'Connor). O'Connor claims she saw the two together the night that Varden was beaten to death in her apartment. Vole is arrested, and his solicitor (Henry Daniell) wants England's best barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (Laughton) to defend him. Robarts is recovering from a heart attack, and is being nursed by Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lancaster). He is a difficult patient, and is not looking forward to an enforced rest in Bermuda. So, despite the protests of Plimsoll he takes the case. He does promise her he will listen to his doctor and take his medicine. She does not trust him.
Sir Robert meets Vole's German born wife, Christina Helm (Dietrich), who alarms him. She is too cool, to detached at her husband's peril. But he goes ahead, and is soon in court fighting a first rate opponent (Torin Thatcher as Myers), and scores some impressive points against the prosecution, especially in cross-examining O'Connor. But at the critical moment he finds that by a subtle point of law, Dietrich can testify against Power, and does so. So the plot becomes, how to defeat this "witness for the prosecution"? Is there something that can turn the tables on her and her testimony.
And the evidence to use against Dietrich does appear - from an unexpected source. Is it effective? Will Power be saved in the end? Or is there something going on?
Although the conclusion of this film has been pretty well known for years, I will refrain from explaining what it is. A good mystery should surprise the audience, as this does every audience that sees it for the first time. Laughton and Lancaster make a funny pair (and in the end, an endearing one from Lancaster's point of view). Power gets to play his most sinister part since "the Great Stanton" Carlyle in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. And Dietrich does pull off the biggest surprise twist in her career.
As for Wilder, after some questionable films in the mid 1950s (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS) he was back in form. His handling of the courtroom scenes (which make up nearly 60% of the film) are far more realistic and speedy than Alfred Hitchcock's plodding THE PARADINE CASE a decade earlier. It was the best of the Christie films prior to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.
If you haven't seen it, though, read no further. For those of you who have, I would like to point out one relatively large flaw in the plot. Much is made during the final scene of Christine Helm's perjury. She even agrees with Sir Wilfred that she will go to prison, but teases, "it won't be for life, will it?"
Is it possible that neither Christine Helm, Sir Wilfred Robarts, Billy Wilder, nor Dame Agatha herself noticed the rather stunning fact that every word Frau Helm spoke on the stand was the absolute truth? The revelation of the final plot twist could have been that much more dramatic had she asked Sir Wilfred, in their moments alone together at the end, "Perjury? What perjury? I committed no perjury. Leonard was guilty as charged. And all I testified about the letters was that I wrote them, not that they were true. They can't touch him, and they can't touch me, either."
It's possible that the book ends differently, and this flaw was introduced in the adaptation. Not having the book handy, I can't verify it one way or the other.
Thanks to its great cast - Tyrone Power and Una O'Connor in their final movies, Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Henry Daniell, and stage actor Francis Thompson as the judge - and the clever way the writers have opened out the stage play, this "Witness for the Prosecution" really grips and holds the interest even for those members of the audience (like myself) who know the plot backwards.
Billy Wilder's direction is as adroit as ever, but on this occasion, it is skilfully impersonal, allowing players and plot to adroitly command and dominate center stage.
This movie is currently available on an excellent 10/10 M-G-M DVD.
This film is great, but not for the realism of ANATOMY OF A MURDER. Instead, it's got such a wonderful script full of wonderful twists and turns. Plus, having top actors on the top of their game (such as Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlena Dietrich) made this such a great film. Plus, it has one of the best all-time endings on film.
So is it realistic? Hardly, but given the magnificent script, this can easily be forgiven and just be enjoyed for the massive entertainment value it brings. If you don't enjoy this film, you must be dead!
This is an engrossing and tightly wound tale of greed, murder, deception, bigamy, adultery, and all the other good things in life. It's essentially a courtroom drama with several big -- REALLY big -- surprises. It does not end the way you might expect, with the true criminal suddenly revealed in all his moral turpitude by the expert, penetrating examination by the defense, breaking down in the witness chair and sobbing, "Okay. I did it! I DID IT! I didn't mean to kill her! I just wanted to frighten her."
The play's the thing in this movie, yet the director, Billy Wilder, brings his own snappy interpretation to it. The dialog is unashamedly fast. Nobody dawdles over "significant utterances." Even on the witness stand they seem to make a series of unhesitating declarations. "Yes." "No." "Yes, I told you already." And it wouldn't be as good as it is without the acting. Charles Laughton is the central figure, one of those cute old curmudgeons that everyone likes because of his weakness for cigars and brandy. His efforts to bootleg these items under the nose of his nurse, his real wife Elsa Lanchester, are pretty funny. "She won't even find the ASHES," he cackles innocently, like a child getting away with mischief, flicking his cigar ash into an empty drawer. She's always bright and chipper and energetic, a nice contrast to his flabby sedate presence.
Una O'Connor as the Scottish maid is extremely engaging as well, snapping back indignantly at the judge. Tyrone Power is called on to change from a careless and thoughtful guy, to one stricken by fate, then back again, and he pulls it off. Henry Daniell, a Robin Hood villain, and John Williams, ever the legal type, are welcome in every scene in which they appear. Reliable sorts, don't you know. But Marlene Dietrich takes the palm. She was everyone's idea of a no-baloney kind of woman but never anyone's idea of a great actress. And yet, she had me fooled here. Oh, hammy, sure, but her performances fit in because EVERYONE is hammy in "Witness for the Prosecution." God forbid anyone try to make anything serious and arty out of an Agatha Christie mystery! They're fine, just as they are.
Excellent film packs drama , emotion , suspense and plot twists . This agreeable and often intriguing picture from master of comedy has a memorable scene after another . It contains interesting intrigue based on Agatha Christie's novel , fun intrigue , amusing situations and keeps the action at feverish pitch . The film followed the basic story of Agatha Christie's play, but director and co-screenwriter Billy Wilder opened up the story by including numerous scenes that did not take place solely in the courtroom, as the play had, and changed the emphasis from "Leonard Vole" to "Sir Wilfrid Robarts¨. Top-notch and unforgettable performance from Charles Laughton as the peculiar as well as intelligent barrister , throwing himself into the role with dedication and delight . Nice acting by Tyrone Power , this would be his last complete film , he would die of a heart attack while on the set of his next film (Salomon) less than one year after release of this one . Sensational support cast , including familiar faces such as Elsa Lanchester , John Williams , Henry Daniell , Ruta Lee , Torin Thatcher and veteran Ian Wolfe . Special mention for Una O'Connor , this was Una O'Connor's last big screen motion picture and she was the only member of the original Broadway cast of the play to repeat her role on film . Evocative and atmospheric cinematography in black and white by Russell Harlan . The producers were so concerned about the financial success of the film that during the credits, an announcer urges the audience not to reveal the film's ending to anyone . Lavishly produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Edward Small , as the courtroom setting, which cost $75,000 to build, was a recreation of an actual courtroom in London's Central Criminal Courts , The Old Bailey.
The motion picture was very well directed by Billy Wilder who includes several punchlines , amusing dialogues , humor and entertaining intrigue . Billy was one of the best directors of history . In 1939 started the partnership with Charles Bracket on such movies as ¨Ninotchka¨ , ¨Ball of fire¨ , making their film debut as such with ¨Major and the minor¨ . ¨Sunset Boulevard¨ was their last picture together before they split up . Later on , Billy collaborated with another excellent screenwriter IAL Diamond . Both of them won an Academy Award for ¨Stalag 17¨ dealing with a POW camp starred by William Holden . After that , they wrote/produced/directed such classics as ¨Ace in the hole¨ , the touching romantic comedy ¨Sabrina¨ , this ¨Witness for the prosecution¨ and two movies with the great star Marilyn Monroe , the warmth ¨Seven year itch¨ and ¨Some like hot¨. All of them include screenplays that sizzle with wit . But their biggest success and highpoint resulted to be the sour and fun ¨¨The apartment¨. Subsequently in the 60s and 70s , the duo fell headlong into the pit , they realized nice though unsuccessful movies as ¨Buddy buddy¨ ,¨Fedora¨ , ¨Front page¨ and ¨Secret life of Sherlock Holmes¨, though the agreeable ¨Avanti¨ slowed the decline . The team had almost disappeared beneath a wave of bad reviews and failures . ¨Witness for prosecution¨ rating : Above average , essential and indispensable watching . It justly deserves its place among the best ¨Court Dramas¨ ever made . One of the very best films of all time and to see and see again . An extremely entertaining and riveting film and completely provoking , as it ranked #6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Courtroom Drama" . It's the kind of movie where you know what's coming but , because the treatment , enjoy it all the same .
I love this story, and I love both versions of the film, from 1957 and 1982. It's incredibly suspenseful and interesting-and also quite impossible to talk about without giving spoilers. If you've never seen Witness for the Prosecution, add this one to your list of classics to rent. The acting is fantastic, and the timing makes it a very entertaining old movie to watch. There are no boring bits in this drama; and I guarantee you'll still sit on the edge of your seat the second time you watch it.
What's more, I don't have anything new to add. I just finished watching the movie for the first time, and I thought it was just magnificent. Wonderful cast, wonderful performances, and a completely engrossing and surprising plot. And even some charming humor on the side to keep things from getting too grim. I was able to foresee some of the ending but definitely not all of it.
So anyway, the main point I would want to make is just this: If you have NOT seen this movie, do NOT read any reviews with spoilers! Just see the movie!
The best book on music I've ever read is "The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven", by Charles Rosen. (Read it, it's fascinating.) One of Rosen's claims is that the classical style was the offspring of two impulses: the desire to surprise, and the desire to be formally perfect, to sound "right". In the decades before Haydn's maturity there were composers who startled and composers who satisfied; Haydn was the first to startle and satisfy in the same breath.
Detective story writers have the same ideal as classical composers. The solution must surprise us; yet the "shape" of the story, to those who know the solution, must be beautiful. And, as in music, it's hard to surprise and satisfy at once. If you must go one way or the other, much better to satisfy. One can see the denouement of a Thorndyke story by R. Austin Freeman a mile off, but it's always perfectly crafted, and that is enough. Too many modern detective stories startle us by having the murderer turn out to be one of a dozen characters when it could so easily have been one of the other eleven and nobody would have particularly cared because there's little beauty in the story whoever it turns out to be. But Agatha Christie ... not for nothing is she called "classical". Her solutions are almost always surprising - she may have been better at misdirection than anyone else who ever lived - but they always, in a way that's hard to describe, make perfect dramatic sense. -Okay, so she's not the world's best mystery WRITER. But I often think she attracts undue criticism because she so obviously writes less well than she plots, while the literary defects of writers who can't plot either pass unnoticed.
For all these reasons I'm surprised there aren't more first-rate films based on her works. (I can understand, though, why "The Mousetrap" has never been filmed.) Looking through the IMDb list of twenty-eight cinematic Christies, I'm surprised how many of the ones I've seen fall short of their potential. And twenty-eight isn't really, when you think about it, that many, especially when so many of them are remakes of earlier ones.
Still, most are worth watching, and this particular one is excellent. Faithful to the play, it has the usual finely crafted, classical, Agatha Christie twist. Wilder made it at a moment in his career when he could do no wrong. It must have taken him all of two seconds to decide that Charles Laughton would make the perfect Sir Wilfrid; then, perhaps, another fifteen minutes to settle on Marlene Dietrich as the title character. Just as "Double Indemnity" is set in a black-and-white California, "Witness" is set in a black-and-white England - it makes me wonder if it's a mistake filming Agatha Christie in colour. You'll enjoy this, trust me.
This movie is worth watching. I am not a fan of Agatha Christie, but this movie is one of my favorites.
Charles Laughton makes this movie. He is what drew me to the movie to begin with. I was not disappointed.
Marlene Deitrich and Tyrone Power play their rolls to the max and manage to play both the jury and the audience to the end.
This movie is well worth watching.