Title – Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Director – Billy Wilder (Some like it Hot)
Cast – Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams
Plot – Well respected British barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Laughton) takes on a case representing accused murderer Leonard Vole (Power) as he battles his health problems and one of the most loaded jobs of his career.
“Wilfrid the Fox! That’s what they call him, and that’s what he is!”
Review by Eddie on 25/06/2020
Regarded as one of the best courtroom dramas and films of all-time, Billy Wilder’s wildly successful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s stage play of the same name is a devilishly well-written and performed dramatic thriller (with a underrated sense of dark humor) that remains to this day an unpredictable and inventive exercise in what can be achieved with minimal fuss but perfectly tuned directives.
As is the case with many of Christie’s more famed works, Prosecution centers its twisting and turning narrative around a larger than life central figure, here Charles Laughton’s ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts, who takes on a seemingly impossible too win case involving Tyrone Power’s wannabe inventor Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering wealthy elderly statesman Emily French, a woman of whom he had struck up a friendship with in the months prior to her untimely demise.
It’s hard to put into words just how commanding and fun Laughton’s turn is as the razor sharp but health affected Roberts, most famous for his string of showy performances and responsible for directing the genuine American classic The Night of the Hunter (his sole directional effort), Laughton is a tour de force throughout Prosecution.
From moments where he is bickering with his long-suffering nurse or butler, through to moments where he plays cat and mouse games in the courtroom defending Vole against seemingly insurmountable odds, Laughton delivers one of the great turns of the era under the ever watchful eye of the incredibly consistent Wilder.
Supported by Power and the feisty (and in one instance leggy) Marlene Dietrich as Vole’s German wife Christine, who causes havoc for the films main protagonists, Laughton and his co-stars thrive under the guidance of Wilder who brilliantly adds energy and substance to the film that in the wrong hands could’ve become nothing more than a talk-heavy bore that failed to fire away from the world of stage.
Wilder’s understanding and treatment of the material ensures that not a single line of dialogue is wasted nor a scene takes place for seemingly no reason as Prosecution is constantly moving forward towards one of cinema’s great final stretches, that at the time asked kindly of its audience members to keep tight lipped about the ending they had just seen to maintain the surprise for those still yet to partake in the courtroom revelations.
There’s no doubt that elements of the film feel dated in today’s climates, with some certain scenes (particular those featuring Power) feeling a tad overplayed and some plot devices causing moments that will require a suspension of common sense judgement but overall Prosecution remains a film deserving of its standing in the film community and a feature unlikely to be bettered by any modern day treatments.
Final Say –
Thriving off Wilder’s steady hand behind the camera and the hugely enjoyable performance of Charles Laughton in front of it, Witness for the Prosecution is a thrilling piece of classic film-making that remains a touchstone for courtroom thrillers to this day.
4 stair lifts out of 5