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Witness for the Prosecution

April 27, 2011

The Golden Age of Hollywood was and is considered by many critics and fans alike to be the highlight of the filmmaking process. The studio system that was implemented in Hollywood from roughly the 1920s-1950s made sure that major and minor studios were responsible for contracting hundreds of well-versed and talented writers, directors, and actors. Legendary writer, director, and deity of cinema, Billy Wilder, was one of the many talents hired during the studio system era. Although the system officially ended in 1948, its process was still intact for years to come resulting in grade-A films all throughout the 1950s. However, Wilder’s 1957 adaption of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution is the type of film that reminds viewers of today’s fast paced mode of storytelling of both the strengths and weaknesses of films made during the era. Although Witness for the Prosecution boasts strong performances, wittily engaging writing, and an enthralling story, Witness for the Prosecution, like a fair amount of films produced in the Golden Age, is a product of its time complete with convenient plot devices, heavy exposition, and at times horrifically over the type Hollywood acting. Yet, that’s not to say that Witness for the Prosecution is in any way an unenjoyable film, in fact its quirks may be endearing for some cinephiliacs and annoying to others.

Witness for the Prosecution follows the return of a recently hospitalized barrister (lawyer for you American folk), Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton). Advised by his doctors to take it easy, the passionate hard drinking barrister must forgo taking on “exciting” cases for the sake of his health to which he reluctantly agrees until a friend and fellow barrister begs his help with the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). A suave mild-mannered man, Vole is accused of murdering an older widow who in the previous months had taken Vole under her wing. Assured of his innocence and determined to prove it regardless of the large amount of circumstance evidence against Vole, Robarts takes on the scandalous case involving a murdered millionaire cougar, a ladies’ man, and Vole’s shady mysterious German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) leading to a series of shocking discoveries and a twist ending that would make M. Night look like a hack… if his own work hasn’t already.

Billy Wilder stands the test of time as one the greatest writer/directors that Hollywood has ever seen. Of his filmorgraphy over half of the titles credited to him as a director hold up today as timeless classics from The Major and the Minor, Stalag 17, on to The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard among many others. Although Wilder, Harry Kurtniz, and Larry Marcus merely adapted Witness for the Prosecution from a short story written by Christie, Wilder’s signature is stamped all over the film through its script and clever dialogue. Wilder’s characters always seem to say the wittiest and empowering things at the perfect moments creating an air of amusing repartee and quick dry British humor that translates perfectly leading to hilarious and memorable lines from his characters. In one scene after discussing his desire to murder to his overbearing nurse, Robarts announces how he would plead his case to a judge effectively, stating, “my lord and members of the jury I hereby enter a plea of justifiable homicide. For four months this alleged angel of mercy has poured, probed, punctured, pillaged, and plundered my poor helpless body while tormenting my mind with a steady drip of baby talk.” It may not be hilarious in written context but watch the scene, the delivery is perfect.

Although Witness for the Prosecution is no doubt Wilder’s film, Charles Laughton steals the show. Portraying the intelligently brash barrister Robarts, Laughton is mesmerizing to watch and simply listen to. Although rude, pushy, and impulsive, Robarts is beloved by his assistants who give him the nickname Wilfred “The Fox.” Laughton does a phenomenal job portraying to audiences the qualities that have given him his nickname and such adoring fans. A man who heartlessly taunts and insults his assertive nurse, a man who switches cocoa for bourbon to drink during trials, who despite doctors wishes smokes repeatedly, and who aimlessly plays with his medication during trials while somehow retaining enough attention to call objection to his rivals. Laughton portrays Robarts as a mix of Oscar Wilde, Tallulah Bankhead, and Johnny Cochran speaking eloquently and quickly with a fair amount of his quips that may take moments to process before a laugh can result.

The weaknesses of Witness for the Protection however are many, including Wilder’s conservative style of directing. Witness for the Prosecution is void of stunning and noticeably aesthetically pleasing shots, because of this the action seems slow and trite leaving the script and performances to pick up the slack, a consequence that would work had all the performances been up to par. While Wilder pulls a great performance from Laughton, the same cannot be said for Power. The lack of enthusiastic cinematography and over the top theatrical performances from Power and Dietrich brings to mind the question of why even adapted such a story for film anyway?

As a lover of classic cinema and the Golden Age of Hollywood, I can say confidently that a majority of the films of the period should be seen for the sake of history and entertainment but fans can’t and shouldn’t deny that not all of these films were “gems.” Despite its flaws however, Witness for the Prosecution shows how even the most mediocre films of the Golden Age of Hollywood are still great to watch today and can still be shocking and provocative. Although filled with great laughs and moments, Witness for the Prosecution is an intense courtroom drama that takes viewers on a roller coaster ride of emotions and pays off with a satisfying and shocking ending.

SEE IT. It’s a bit stuffy in parts but overall a great watch.

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