This 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.
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?
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.