Posts Tagged ‘Charles Laughton’

Movie Reviews 377 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

January 19, 2019

Charles Laughton has always been a favorite actor of mine and I consider his portrayal of the relentless barrister in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution as his best role.  But with such a stellar supporting cast that includes Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester director Billy Wilder was sure to have a hit on his hands the moment he said “Action!”

Returning to office from a recent hospitalization due to a heart attack scare Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is being coddled by his torturous personal nurse (Lanchester) and doctors orders instruct him to stay away from any trying cases when he is presented with the odd situation of a lowly inventor (Power) being accused of murder. He fully intends to follow his medical orders as he tries to squirrel away cigars and booze from those hoping he represent the accused when the man’s very wife (Dietrich) gives the most lethargic and unconvincing alibi imaginable.

Now piqued, Robarts takes on the case and by picking apart the prosecution seems to sway the court with the help of some last minute ‘evidence’ . But his keen senses tell him that something wrong which turns out to be an understatement. Contrary to how courtroom dramas usually proceed, the verdict is not the end of the story but in a way the beginning.

This film clicks on many levels. The mystery is suspenseful not only from the point of view of whether the accused is really guilty – although the pendulum certainly begins to sway in one direction – but also the evident inconsistency in the wife’s lack of faith in her own husband. And in this one aspect the final revelation is as shocking as the truth to the murder allegation. More surprisingly, (well perhaps not as much given that this was directed by the great Billy Wilder ) this movie has some of the funniest, butting banter between Laughton and Lanchester regarding his health which begins with the very first scene to a surprising coup de grâce last line in the film.

There is some additional welcome comedy from an elderly cleaning lady (Una O’Connor) and other courtroom antics but the film is not all fun. The underlying story is built upon post war anti-German sentiment among the ruins of a bombed out Berlin tavern and the supposed murder is that of an charming innocent wealthy widow.

Known for it’s astonishing ending, one held in such high regard it warranted secrecy during filming (common today but extraordinary at the time) some have remarked that that secrecy may have even cost Dietrich an Oscar. While it did not win any Oscars it was heavily nominated at numerous ceremonies that year, so really something of a hidden gem for those focused on wins alone.

I was tempted to seek out Christie’s original version but apparently the source material was just a short story and this screened adaptation had a lot of it’s ‘meat’ added. Given the talents involved I suspect that the additions are what made this film so great.

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