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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.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A film I have not seen for years but will always remember with
fondness. A classic thriller with all the right ingredients - Power and
Dietrich are spectacular, and, by early standards (and recent ones!),
the twist is excellent.
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!
Witness for the Prosecution is, as IMDb voters cann attest, a great
movie. A clever, character-driven courtroom drama, it deserved the
Academy Award nominations that it received in 1958, and it has justly
endured to the present day. Starring the terrific talents of Charles
Laughton, Tyrone Power, and particularly Marlene Dietrich, directed by
Billy Wilder, and based on the superb short story by Agatha Christie,
it is a combination has all of the very best ingredients, and delivers
a nearly outstanding film.
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.
Billy Wilder is a director with an understanding of cinema that is
almost unmatched throughout the medium's entire history - that's why
his films are always so good. Witness for the Prosecution is yet
another highlight in the great director's history, and it proves that
courtroom dramas can be both riveting and a great opportunity for some
first rate comedy. Wilder's film features one of the most well paced
plots I've ever seen in a film, and it's a plot that includes some very
finely tuned twists. Towards the end, Wilder bombards us with twist
after twist, each one both making sense and topping the one before it.
In a time when people are impressed by films such as 'The Sixth Sense',
Billy Wilder still shows us how to skilfully attribute a twist into a
film's plot. The plot itself follows the story of Sir Wilfrid Robarts;
an ace defence lawyer that has been told that his health won't allow
him to tackle anything more than mundane cases, but is brought back
into the fray when a case involving the murder of an elderly woman
comes into his hands. Wilfrid must now juggle the case and his health
as he attempts to keep the young man from being sent down.
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!
At the end of the day the films you give top marks are those films that become constant companions. You can see them again at the drop of a hat, you show them to people who have never see them and it's always a triumph. "Witness For The Prosecution" is one of those wonders. Suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours and enjoy this banquet of a romp. Charles Laughton showed here what he was made of better, more clearly and more loudly than in any other film and all of his films, at least the moments with him in it, are unforgettable - Captain Blight or Henry VIII, Quasimodo or that malefic Senator from South Carolina. Here the severity of his lawyer by vocation takes your senses away with his masterful judicial way to see logic and it's such an incredible fun to watch him do it. Tyrone Power is a toy in his hands but not Marlene Dietrich who stands her ground, not merely as a character but as a presence on the screen. Billy Wilder visits early Hitchcock territory with wit and fun. Elsa Lanchester's nurse is the cherry on top of this delightful film.
This is one of the best "trial movies" ever made. It's an outstanding
film that is just as good today as it was almost 50 years ago when it
was released in the theaters. The shocking ending caused quite a stir
back then, too.
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.
In a recent biography of Billy Wilder, Agatha Christie is quoted as
saying that this was the best adaption of her work ever done on the
screen. I can't praise Witness for the Prosecution any higher than
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.
I first saw this movie about 15 years ago and loved it. I just watched it
on VHS and was captivated all over again. Agatha Christie's story, Billy
Wilder's screenplay and direction, and the four main leads all get it right.
Charles Laughton is absolutely superb, and Elsa Lanchester is a perfect
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.
Another brilliant work in the legendary career of Billy
The director signs a cinematic adaptation of this Agatha Christie story:
actually it is really as if the camera went on stage for filming the play.
But the film is passionating and exciting, there's no time to get
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.
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