It's Britain, 1953. Upon his return to work following a heart attack, irrepressible barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, known as a barrister for the hopeless, takes on a murder case, much to the exasperation of his medical team, led by his overly regulated private nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who tries her hardest to ensure that he not return to his hard living ways - including excessive cigar smoking and drinking - while he takes his medication and gets his much needed rest. That case is defending American war veteran Leonard Vole, a poor, out of work, struggling inventor who is accused of murdering his fifty-six year old lonely and wealthy widowed acquaintance, Emily French. The initial evidence is circumstantial but points to Leonard as the murderer. Despite being happily married to East German former beer hall performer Christine Vole, he fostered that friendship with Mrs. French in the hopes that she would finance one of his many inventions to the tune of a few hundred pounds. It thus does ... Written by
As the end credits appear on screen, an announcer's voice is heard: "The management of this theater suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution." See more »
Charlie Chaplin was funny. Charles Laughton was witty. As good as 'Witness For The Prosecution' is---Agatha Christie's story, the other actors, the technical expertise---the Oscar-nominated Laughton is THE reason to see this film. What he brings to Billy Wilder's 1957 courtroom thriller is his tremendous wit and intellect. It's a serious story, but the dark-comic tag team of Wilder/Laughton upgraded the film from "a good courtroom mystery" to "a classic of the courtroom genre".
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.
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