|WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)|
|"I am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders."|
|Time: 116 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Courtroom Drama
Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Laughton), Actress (Lanchester), Director, Film Editing, Sound and Best Picture.
Being a huge fan of the director Billy Wilder, I make sure to check out any of his films whenever I get the chance. This film is one of those hidden classics, beloved by those who've seen it, but under the radar when compared to others. What surprised me more than anything is that this film is as good as SOME LIKE IT HOT and SUNSET BLVD., yet I, like most people know very little about it. It is the quintessential courtroom drama with all the requisite twists and turns. It has Wilder's dark, intelligent and witty paw prints all over the snappy dialogue, unique characters and intriguing plot. He always claimed that he never knew the ending of his screenplays because he wanted to see where the action took him. Well, that would be truly remarkable in this case if it were true. The twists, turns and utter contortions of this simple case of murder keep you guessing from start to finish. I can't say I was entirely surprised by the finale, but I was stunned by how he manipulated me to it.
The one thing you can always count on in a Wilder picture are unique, interesting and morally sketchy characters. They are real people in extraordinary situations and are usually completely unforgettable. In the case of this film, Charles Laughton lights up the screen as the aging barrister, England's version of lawyer, determined to clear a man of murder despite his declining health. He may be cantankerous, but he's the best there is...and Leonard Vole (Power) needs all the help he can get. The evidence against Vole, a continually out-of-work inventer, is mostly circumstantial, but still highly damning. It seems the victim, an older wealthy widow of Vole's recent acquaintance, had her head smashed in just one week after changing her will, leaving all her money to him. His wife Christine (Dietrich), a woman he rescued from Germany by marrying her, is his only alibi, which isn't very helpful, since spouses aren't considered credible witnesses. It will take all of Sir Wilfrid's intellect and skill to clear Vole of this violent crime.
Sir Wilfrid has his work cut out for him, especially after he meets the beautiful and mysterious Christine. She's nothing like what he expected. Her disdainful attitude towards her husband and the proceedings is more than a little startling to him. She gives Sir Wilfrid a very different idea of her marriage to Vole and what happened the night of the murder. He has no idea what she's up to, but proceeds with the case anyway. He manages to poke holes in the stories and motivations of the prosecution's first few witnesses, but is stunned when they call Christine in to testify against Leonard. It's at this point that he begins to suspect that he's being played a fool, however, he just can't figure out her motive for betraying her husband. In the end, he discovers the plot behind her testimony, but it's too late to do anything about it. I can't reveal more about the film because it will ruin the suspense of the goings on. Needless to say, the ending is very intricate with surprises galore. More than anything I found the motivations more surprising than the eventual verdict. That I was expecting. After all, Sir Wilfrid is the most brilliant barrister in England.
Without a doubt, this has to be one of the best courtroom dramas ever made. Laughton is intelligent and amusing as Sir Wilfrid, capturing your heart and attention from the get go. Most of the humor comes from his berating his overbearing nurse, played with great cheek and determination by Elsa Lanchester, for depriving a "dying" man the simple pleasures of life juicy cases, warm brandy and big cigars. The film is not laugh out loud funny, but it wouldn't be Wilder if it didn't have some spots of subtle comedy. Though not nominated for her performance, Dietrich is wonderful here, playing the cold-hearted bitch with a dark secret. She so good, she makes the ending even more surprising. I believe Tyrone Power gives the performance of his career. From the moment he appears onscreen, you believe every word coming out of his mouth. There's no reason you should, you know nothing about him. And yet, he makes you believe he's innocent despite the piles of evidence that say otherwise. The three of them bounce off each other perfectly, giving the story the perfect balance.
It's no surprise to me that this film was nominated for Best Picture. There's not a false note or scene out of place. It's written, directed and edited as tight as a drum with just the right amount of exposition to make you care about those involved, but not so much as to bore. I've seen a great many movies, so I'm always thrilled when I stumble upon one that not only holds my attention, but keeps me guessing until the final frame. If you're unfamiliar with Billy Wilder and his films, I feel sorry for you. He's one of our very best filmmakers, having made brilliant films spanning all genres, and this one is no exception. It proves movies don't have to be dumb to be entertaining. Do yourself a favor and rent it today.