Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)

Witness 1This is my contribution to Power-Mad, the Tyrone Power Centennial Blogathon. I’ve avoided spoilers, as the film’s twists are so important to its appeal. 

Films where an actor is cast against type always have a fascination, and I’ve sometimes thought this would in itself be a great blogathon theme. Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution sees Tyrone Power surprisingly cast in what turned out to be his final role – and is sometimes said to be his best. In a sharp contrast with all the swashbuckling heroes he’s played, here he is cast as a charming drifter and would-be inventor who can’t hold down a job.

Yet, cleverly, the casting does play on his reputation as a matinee idol, since his character, Leonard Vole, is a man who gets women swooning. In particular, one older woman who befriended him – Emily French (Norma Varden). She’s the one he is now accused of murdering. I’ll admit I’ve never been a big Power fan (though I’m hoping to be converted by other postings in this blogathon!) , but I’m definitely impressed by his performance as Leonard, with his worn boyishness and increasing desperation. Vole can’t quite take the murder accusation seriously, but is persuaded that he needs to engage a barrister, and the stage is set for one of the all-time great courtroom dramas.

Power and Dietrich

Power and Dietrich

Vole is also married to an older woman, German singer Christine, played by Marlene Dietrich. He believes that they are happy, but she seems unenthusiastic about testifying on his behalf in court, which could potentially threaten his defence. And, if Power is somewhat cast against type, it’s the opposite case with Dietrich, where there is a feeling that she is reprising her characteristic role just one last time.

At 55, Dietrich was only three years younger than Norma Varden. Yet she is still astonishingly beautiful here, and triumphantly carries off a new riff on the femme fatale role she had first played 27 years earlier in The Blue Angel. There’s even a sexy song for her to perform, in a flashback scene which shows how Leonard and Christine met in a war-torn Berlin. It’s no surprise to learn from the  TCM article on the film, which does contain spoilers  that Wilder added in this material, partly paying homage to his earlier collaboration with Dietrich, A Foreign Affair.  There is masses of chemistry between Dietrich and Power, despite them seeming a strangely-assorted couple, and this helps with the audience guessing game about the couple’s relationship. It’s also interesting to see such a glamorous couple playing “ordinary” people – can we really believe in them leading a quiet domestic life?

Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton

Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton

However, the central couple in this film aren’t the only focus of attention. A lot of their thunder is stolen by great actor Charles Laughton, who is fantastic as the grumpy elderly barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts. Despite just having  come out of hospital after a heart attack, he can’t resist taking on Vole’s case. Laughton adds a lot of irascible humour to the film, and puts on a great double act with real-life wife Elsa Lanchester as domineering nurse Miss Plimsoll. I feel that Sir Wilfrid is very much a precursor for John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – which brings me on to the setting for the film. Watching it, I fully believed that it had been shot in London, and was surprised to learn that it had actually been made at the Samuel Goldwyn studios in California, with designer Alexandre Trauner re-creating the Old Bailey court.

Of course, with any courtroom drama, there’s always an awareness that all of the characters are performing for the jury, and the constant question is how much of what anyone says is true. The film as a whole is hugely entertaining, with great performances by all the leads, and plenty of shocking twists which I for one never saw coming. There are also great variations of mood, as so often with Billy Wilder. In some of the battles of wills between  Laughton and Lanchester we’re almost in the world of Ealing comedy – but then the more serious battle of wills in court brings back the darker undertones.

It’s very sad that this was Power’s final role, as  he died at such a young age from a heart attack, but he certainly went out with a great final performance here, and indeed the whole cast is superb.  I’d probably say that Laughton gives the finest performance of all here, but it’s a tough one to call.

 

 

 

 

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28 thoughts on “Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)

  1. I love this movie. It is my favorite Tyrone Power film…though a few others, including my own contribution to the blogathon, aren’t far behind. I do think it is one of the best performances of his career. He is really brilliant here. And so is Marlene! Certainly she—if not Power as well—ought to have received an Academy Award nomination.

    Like you, I never saw some of those twists coming, and while repeated viewings take away the element of surprise, it’s still a movie able to be enjoyed again and again.

    I do hope you will come away from the blogathon with a greater appreciation for Mr. Power. I have to admit, I’ve been in love with him all my life, really. You see, my paternal grandfather (who was only 3 years Powers’ senior) was always told he looked like Tyrone Power, and so when I look at Power, I see my grandfather. Similarly, when I look at photos of my grandfather, I see Power. So, there you have it—I am crushing on my grandfather!

    Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon, Judy. Your fantastic article is a perfect addition to the 100th birthday event.

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    • Patti, I’m sure I will enjoy repeat viewings despite now knowing what is coming – and in fact it will be fun to see how some of the twists are prepared. I haven’t actually seen all that many of Power’s films, so I’m hoping to catch up on more and see if I can appreciate him better. That’s interesting about your grandfather looking like him, and it’s great when an actor reminds us of a family member. Thanks so much to you and Patty for hosting the blogathon!

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  2. I was surprised to read this film was not shot in England. Wow – those set designers were amazing!

    This is a fascinating film with great performances by Power and Dietrich, but you’re right about Laughton and Lanchester stealing the show.

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    • Ruth, I’ve just looked up the notes on this production at TCM’s site, and I see that some background shots were filmed in London, but all the rest, including all the courtroom scenes, was made at the Samuel Goldwyn studios in Hollywood (not the MGM ones as stated on the imdb, so I’ll do a quick edit to my piece!) The set designers certainly were amazing. According to the TCM article, set designer Alexandre Trauner said he had improved on reality with his version of the Old Bailey – I can believe it! Thanks so much for your comment!

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    • Clayton, I loved it right away, but am glad to hear you came round to it. Thanks for the nice comment!

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  3. Great movie. And your review does it justice. I think Laughton and Lanchester steal the film but it’s a great part for Tyrone Power.
    Discussing the ending would ,I’m sure, have provided you with lots more to say, but of course it would be a shame for those who haven’t seen the film.

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    • Vienna, I was torn two ways about whether to write a long review and talk about the famous twists and the ending, but in the end I decided to go without spoilers this time – also I’m quite pushed for time at the moment, so that was an extra temptation for me to keep my piece short. Definitely agree that Laughton and Lanchester are fantastic, though I do also love Dietrich and Power in it. Thanks very much!

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  4. A typically fine piece, Judy. I loved this movie when I first caught it on TV way back when, and I still do. The whole cast is terrific and Power did great work tapping into the seedier side of his character.
    The twist? I never saw it coming, and I’m glad I didn’t.

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    • Thanks so much, Colin – I was also pleased not to have spotted the twist(s)! I like your description of Power’s performance here.

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  5. I hadn’t really considered this until reading your review, Judy, but it occurs to me that if Tyrone Power had to die at such a young age, he was probably fortunate that his last film was Witness for the Prosecution, as it is one of his very best dramatic performances, a great role in a great Billy Wilder classic.

    He and Wilder became friends on the set (according to Wilder, Dietrich apparently wished to become closer than that to Power) and spent some time in Europe together afterward, on holiday. And they talked about working together again. After watching Witness for the Prosecution again not long ago and admiring Power’s performance as Leonard Vole, I thought about how well he might have done, had he lived, as Mr. Sheldrake, the Fred MacMurray role, in Wilder’s The Apartment.

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    • Patty, I must admit that I’ve never seen ‘The Apartment’ – it’s one of the many films I’ve been meaning to see for ages but have never got around to. Must hope to put that right soon and, when I do, I’ll bear that thought about the casting in mind. Thanks for your comment and for all your work in organising the blogathon with Patti!

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  6. Wilder is one of my favorite directors, and like most of his films, I love this one included. The cast is excellent with special kudos going to the always terrific Charles Laughton. As for Mr. TP it’s one of his best roles, unfortunately his last. A wonderful review here!

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    • Many thanks, John. Must agree that Charles Laughton is always terrific – he’s been great in everything of his I’ve seen, and I hope to catch up with those I haven’t.

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  7. I enjoyed your review of a film I’ve always found enormously entertaining. Wilder keeps the pace spry even at the extended running time for a courtroom drama and even the small parts are played expertly. I’ve always enjoyed a film more if the supporting players standout as well as the leads and here not only is Norma Varden memorable but Una O’Connor is a sketch as Norma’s maid. I remember the first time I watched how surprised I was when Ruta Lee popped up in that tiny part. She’s so different than how I was use to seeing her on the old game and talk shows with her big blonde bubble of a hairdo and heavy makeup, I’ve seen her since in many old TV shows and realized that in her day she was a decent and at times subdued actress.

    Looking back on it now it’s somewhat obvious Power was not in the best of health when he made the film, he looks so worn compared to just a few years previously. He certainly looks older than the 42-43 years he would have been when he made the movie. If you’re not too familiar with his work I’d suggest Nightmare Alley, Power’s own favorite of his films and what he considered his best performance. Also Johnny Apollo is a good gangster flick and The Rains Came, he’s improbably cast as an Indian but the film, with Myrna Loy and George Brent, is involving and won the first Oscar for special effects.

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    • Joel, I should have mentioned Una O’Connor – I definitely agree that she is good in the role and adds a lot of humour. I haven’t seen her in many old TV shows, so am interested to hear that she was so different. Thanks for the great recommendations, which are much appreciated – I haven’t seen any of those three films but will hope to catch up with them. Sorry to be slow in replying, I’ve been falling behind with email over the last few days!

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  8. Judy

    I find your choice of Billy Wilder’s 1957 film, “Witness For The Prosecution”, very interesting. I have a theory that Wilder may have used Hitchcock’s 1950 film “Stage Fright” as a template for his own film – the similarities are many, and not limited to the fact that they may be described as mystery crime thrillers with surprising conclusions.

    Marlene Dietrich participates in both productions as a former cabaret singer, enabling, firstly Hitchcock, and then Wilder, the opportunity to introduce, by flashback, a Dietrich song – in “State Fright” – “she gives.a sultry, witty performance of…..”The Laziest Gal in Town as well as “La Vie en Rose” “; while in “Witness” – ” …there’s even a sexy song to perform” (“I May Never Go Home Anymore”). In both productions the numbers advance the story and give some incite into the characters she plays.

    Your comment with regard to Hitchcock’s “State Fright’ – “Dietrich is an enjoyably multi-faced as Charlotte putting on different personalities at will….and letting all the masks slip in one scene where she suddenly gives us a moment of pure evil”, is interchangable with the character of Christine in “Witness” -although some may consider she had considerable justification for her action – my wife included!

    Hitchcock’s injection of humour in the form of Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike was a welcome distraction in “Stage Fright”, and so brought some “life” into what could have been, a rather gloomy film ; Writer/Director Wilder treated Agatha Christie’s story and play in the same manner by expanding and humanising the character of Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) and introducing Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). As a result Charles Laughton received (unsuccessful) nominations for “Best Actor in a Leading Role” for both the 1958 Oscars as well as the Golden Globes, while Elsa Lanchester won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film..

    Judy I have used another of your comments from your review of “Stage Fright” to illustrate the similarities between both films – “the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of the seat agony as better known Hitchcocks”.

    In conclusion, I would add that it has been recorded that Hitchcock was often mistakenly credited with the direction of “Witness of the Prosecution” and it would have been an exceedingly interesting excercise to compare films had that ever occurred.

    Thanks for your thoughtful review.

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    • Rod, as I said to Joel above, sorry to be slow in replying! Thanks for the wonderful comment – it hadn’t struck me quite how many similarities there are between ‘Stage Fright’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, but you have certainly made a persuasive case here for Wilder using the Hitchcock film as his template. And yes, it does feel quite Hitchcockian, I agree.

      It was a surprise to me to see Dietrich doing such a sexy song in her 50s and carrying it off so beautifully – I think this must have been the last one she did on film, although of course she carried on singing in her unique style on stage and TV.

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  9. Judy, the twists in this one absolutely stunned me the first time I saw it and great job on your part not spoiling anything (hope I don’t either!). What I’ve really come to love about Power in this part is that it seems any of the darkness/caddishness/etc. that young Ty sported just underneath in his ’30s roles (eventually) rises to the surface as we get to know this older version of Power. Your description of a “worn boyishness” says what I’m trying to say much more succinctly. Agree that Laughton is also wonderful, though I suspect his was the easiest part to play, if not at least the most fun! I especially love his interactions with Mrs. Laughton throughout. Wonderful post!

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    • Cliff, sorry to be late in replying! I sometimes can’t resist discussing endings, but this time, as my time was limited, I decided to go with a shorter posting and not include spoilers. That’s an interesting comment about the dark underside in those earlier roles coming to the top here. And I agree that Laughton and Lanchester are priceless together. Thank you!

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  10. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this film, but I see so many others are similarly smitten Judy. Typically your latest contribution to another blogothon exhibits your wonderful writing and various insights in your subject. I’d agree that Laughton wins acting honors in a close call with some others here, including Power (who does certainly give one of his best performances) and Marlene Dietrich. I have read in the course of my lifetime every single Agatha Christie novel, short story and play (it was an obsession for me in my late 20’s and early 30’s) and WITNESS and MOUSETRAP are my favorite of her stage works. Laughton’s comic scenes with Elsa Lancaster are priceless and the surprise ending as everyone here has noted is pure gold. Entertainment here with a capital E.

    Fabulously-written and passionately applied review here Judy!

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    • Sam, I remembered that you were keen to see ‘The Mousetrap’ in London, so I suspected you might be an Agatha Christie fan, but I had no idea that you had read all her works – wow! I’ll admit I haven’t read all that much by her as I prefer some of the other Golden Age crime writers, but she certainly came up with a great plot for this one. Glad to hear you are a big fan of this film and I totally agree that all the leads are excellent. Thanks so much for the kind comment!

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  11. You know, I can’t for the life of me remember the final twist of this movie! I saw it and loved it, but clearly I need to see it again. Thanks for reminding me of it!

    And I loved Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in this — I had no idea they were married. How cool!

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    • Hamlette, I wonder if you will suddenly see the twist coming when you watch it again! Hope you enjoy seeing the film again, anyway. And yes, Laughton and Lanchester are great. Thank you!

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  12. This is one of my favorite films. I must have watched it 10 + times and never tire of it.
    The leads are of course superb but so are the widow( Norma Vardrn) and her maid (Una O’Connor). Marlene Dietrich is fascinating to watch every moment.

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    • Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen many films 10 times, but I can definitely see that this one is worth revisiting. Totally agree that the whole cast is good and Dietrich is riveting throughout. Thanks for the comment!

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