Most of the time, I only purchase DVDs or Blu-rays of films that I have seen and enjoyed, so I know that my money is not wasted. However, a few months ago I was feeling a bit adventurous and decided to buy a Peyton-unseen classic film on a whim.
I settled on Witness for the Prosecution (1957), which I had never heard much about. I recognized the names of most of the cast, and of Billy Wilder, the director, but knew little of the plot beyond what is stated on the back of the Blu-ray. It turns out, this movie was released the same year as 12 Angry Men, another well-done courtroom drama and a personal favorite of mine. I finally watched the movie recently and discovered I had stumbled upon quite the gem!
This film was based on the short story and play by famed author Agatha Christie. Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power) has been accused of murdering a rich, older woman who had befriended him. It turns out that she had left Vole a large amount of money in her will; this and other circumstantial evidence lead to Vole’s arrest.
Heading up the defense team is Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), an aging and ailing barrister who is known for being one of the best. Constantly shadowed by his doting nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s actual wife), Robarts is a gruff but thorough man of the law, proving himself time after time in the film to be an effective defense for Vole. The way Laughton’s character subtly manipulates those on the witness stand to exact the truth is a marvel to watch.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight Marlene Dietrich, who plays Christine, Leonard Vole’s German wife. A cold and calculating character, she (to the surprise of Sir Wilfrid, the court, and just about the whole audience) appears as a witness and tries to implicate her husband in the crime. This is but the first of many twists this film has to offer, and Dietrich’s character truly makes the film more interesting.
The cast of Witness for the Prosecution is top-notch. Each of the actors, especially Laughton and Dietrich, inject a good amount of nuance into their roles (example, Sir Wilfrid organizing his pills during the trial). The only performance I have a problem with is that of Tyrone Power, the only American character in the film. I did not enjoy his acting style, which is less nuanced and more straightforwardly American. I know his character is amongst a slew of European performers, so the difference will be noticeable, but it may have been a better idea to make the character English.
That being said, Power does inject some.. ahem… power into a couple of key moments, most notably when his character Vole is called to the witness stand. Being pressured by the prosecutor’s questions, Vole cracks and yells out, proclaiming his innocence. One can tell he is totally exasperated and he shows the relatable frustration of being in a situation where no one else believes you.
Instead of classifying itself as a typical whodunit, this film is more focused on whether Leonard Vole is innocent or not. For most of the film, I was not concerned with who the murderer was, but whether Vole was to be proved innocent by the court or not.
As the trial progresses, the witnesses are questioned and questioned, the prosecution building a good case, just to be shot down by Sir Wilfrid’s defense techniques. The bulk of the trial is the most fun part to watch, save for the ending.
Oh, yes, the ending.
With more twists than Chubby Checker, the ending of this film is best left a surprise. Heck, the film even ends with a prompt narration asking viewers not to divulge the ending of Witness for the Prosecution to their friends. I am honoring this request.
This film received 6 Academy Award nominations for the 30th Oscars, but won no awards. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai (dang, that one is great, too).
I thoroughly enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution and I highly recommend it! You will be taken in by the great characters and engaged by the drama. The trial scenes and the ending had me glued to the screen as some people are during football games. The performances on display here drew me in, and I stayed for them and the well-crafted plot; certainly one that only Agatha Christie could conjure up.
Seek this one out! It is available on Blu-ray here, via Kino Lorber, and the picture quality is very good. For a blind purchase, this was fantastic!