I was recommended today’s film by the excellent blog Mrs. and Mrs. (check it out via the Blogroll or at http://mrsandmrs.wordpress.com/). I’m always open to suggestions…I’ll watch any movie (good, bad, ugly) from any time period, and any genre (I’m not as big on foreign films but I don’t immediately say ‘I won’t watch them’ like some people). Anyway, I’m usually wary about people recommending me “films that are right up your alley.” If you read my review of What A Girl Wants you know that movies I’m “supposed” to like aren’t always what I enjoy. So Witness for the Prosecution was a total surprise to me from Jump Street because it’s directed by Billy Wilder, one of my FAVORITE directors, and stars Charles Laughton who directed one of my FAVORITE movies…so in this case the movie was made for me. Witness for the Prosecution is a searing, witty as all hell, courtroom drama with a stunning performance from Marlene Dietrich and one twist I saw coming, and another I didn’t even expect!
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is a retired lawyer (barrister…it is set in England?) in failing health. He gets offered the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man accused of killing a wealthy woman he might or might not have been involved with. Sir Wilfrid is all prepared to bring Leonard’s German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) to the witness stand as his alibi, but things change when it’s revealed Christine isn’t really Leonard’s wife and is being called as a witness for the prosecution (hey that’s where the title comes from, just kidding).
The above synopsis doesn’t even cover the majority of the film’s almost two-hour runtime. The movie introduces the characters within the first ten minutes, the court is prepped and within the first fifteen you learn Christine’s true intentions. The rest of the film involves Robarts trying to find a way to get Leonard acquitted without Christine’s damning testimony. The first courtroom film I compared this to was Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart but that wouldn’t come out for another two years. While I liked Anatomy it said as much as this movie in three hours what this does in two, and this does it better! The twists at the end are amazing because you immediately see one coming, only to have another happen immediately after! This movie hits you with both barrels and just when you think you’ve figured everything out, like Robarts himself, you get hit with something that not even he saw coming.
Laughton is amazing in this movie; a perfect blend of sarcasm and smarts. He’s introduced alongside his put-upon Nurse Plimsoll (played by real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Nurse Plimsoll is a character that does things out of love for Robarts, but she’s also a mother-figure and a non-stop talker. She starts to tell him about a lawyer she could have married, but he died. Robarts coldly replies “He certainly was a lucky lawyer.” The man’s general response to people is “shut up” but I loved him because of his ability to tell people the truth, whether it hurts or not. The banter back-and-forth between Plimsoll and Robarts could have been extremely out-of-place in this movie, more in line with a marriage comedy, but it simply reinforces how you feel about the character. Nurse Plimsoll says she plans to resign, Robarts replies “Splendid, give her a month’s pay and kick her down the stairs.” You can tell I loved the script by Wilder himself because I can’t stop quoting it, the mark of any fine film in my book! One more, Robarts is apparently convalescing at home because he was kicked out of the hospital for “conduct unbecoming of a cardiac patient.”
The film’s big theme is about man-children. Robarts wants one final case before he’s forgotten yet people continuously treat him like a child. Nurse Plimsoll commands him to bed, he’s forced to drink “cocoa” (and the way Laughton says cocoa with such disdain is hilarious), yet he doesn’t help matters. In fact Robarts acts like a child just as much as he’s treated like one. When he sees they’ve put a lift on the banister to get him up the stairs he gets a child-like glee of “testing it out” and riding it up and down the banister, stopping and starting. He hides cigars in his cane and when he does take a puff he says “if she [Nurse Plimsoll] could see me now.”
It’s this child-like expectation, that people assume Robarts is a child, that brings Leonard Vole into the mix. It’s Vole child-like naiveté that puts him in this situation (and also makes the ending so revealing). He nonchalantly tells the ladies in Robarts office he was arrested “for murder” and proclaims that his relationship with the older woman he’s accused of murdering was innocent, a mother caring for a child. In fact, Vole’s relationship with the murdered Mrs. French (Norma Varden) is similar to Wilder’s 1950s film Sunset Blvd which also had an older woman caring for a younger man. What makes this even more apparent is the fact that Blvd’s leading man William Holden was originally offered the role of Vole. I’m wondering if he turned it down because of how similar it was? Tyrone Power would die shortly after filming of a heart attack, and he does channel that sweetness and sexuality of Holden. From far away Power even looks like Holden with darker hair (I’m a sucker for William Holden, they don’t make men like that).
The true scene stealer though is Marlene Dietrich as Christine. I would say this is my first Dietrich film (I know blasphemy) and she blew me away! She enters the scene cold and aloof, or a total bitch if we’re using today’s language. When Robarts tries to test her resolve by shining the light off his monocle in her face, she totally one-ups him by smoothly going over to the window and drawing the shades saying “is that better?” She’s extremely manipulative and knows exactly what to say, “I will have tears in my eyes” as she proclaims Leonard’s innocence on the witness stand. Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were originally offered the role and they were so beautiful and all-American that it wouldn’t have worked. Christine is immediately labeled untrustworthy, not because she’s Leonard’s wife but because she’s German…playing on the fears still-hanging prejudice of WWII. I’m still shocked she didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for this (and Dietrich was surprised as well).
“Blood is thicker than evidence” and as Witness for the Prosecution proves, it makes a damn good movie. I’d go so far as to add this to my favorites, and it’s Wilder so all his movies are amazing (although there’s still a few I haven’t seen).
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.