Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)


A Reaction to Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution,” in Two Acts (with what might be construed as “spoilers” in Act II…but not really)

Act I (Being a reaction to the first 111 minutes of “Witness for the Prosecution”)

I liked it.  Didn’t love it, but liked it.  Story-wise and (mostly) performance-wise, “Witness for the Prosecution” is trapped in the cinematic conventions of the somewhat exaggerated, Hayes Code-esque 1950s, to its detriment.  The big problem is that from the outset, you’re thoroughly placed on the side of the defendant (and I don’t know how much Billy Wilder altered Agatha Christie’s source material, so I can’t say how much of that is Christie’s fault).  So thoroughly is the lawyer, Sir Wilfrid, and you the audience, made to sympathize with Tyrone Power’s Leonard Vole as the Hitchcock-esque wrongfully accused man that the story loses any kind of moral ambiguity that could’ve made it something special.  Even “Anatomy of a Murder,” made just two years later, made the defendant’s innocence or guilt much more ambiguous and shifted the focus to the defender rather than the defendant.  A movie like that, and like “The Verdict” decades later, are a hell of a lot more interesting when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the case because of that.  “Witness for the Prosecution” tries to do something similar by at least partly shifting the focus to Sir Wilfrid, and indeed scenes involving his everyday life as a recent heart attack victim struggling to defend his client while battling his declining health are a hell of a lot more interesting than those involving Leonard, his duplicitous wife Christine, and the case of the murdered rich widow who just happened to name Leonard in her will.  But then all that great stuff goes to shit with flashback scenes involving the Voles’ first meeting in Germany, and Leonard meeting his alleged victim, that add nothing and take away any momentum the movie might’ve had.  Yeah, it’s a neat little twist when Marlene Dietrich’s suave-as-hell Chrstine turns on her husband as that witness for the prosecution, but other than that it’s a typical murder case, “typical” courtroom drama, with the audience clearly on one side over the other.  It’s the world’s earliest Law & Order episode.

But “Witness for the Prosecution” has some great stuff going for it, overcoming a lackluster courtroom drama story.  For one, Billy Wilder’s direction is everything you’d expect from the legendary filmmaker.  The lighting is wonderful (especially during Sir Wilfrid’s signature monocle trick), giving the otherwise typical courtroom drama a noirish feel, right down to the shadows overtaking Sir Wildrid’s conflicted face in his otherwise bright office.  The cinematography – also wonderful, practically a textbook on the use of deep focus, like in one fascinating shot as Leonard, on the witness stand, turns his back to the prosecutor in a panic: he faces the camera, practically hugging the column that divides him in the foreground and the prosecutor and courtroom in the background.  It’s just one of many great shots that I can’t do justice to.  And really, the BIG selling point for “Witness for the Prosecution” is Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid.  Laughton is just plain awesome in this movie.  One minute he’ll be a huge child bickering with his obnoxious nurse (played by Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester), the next he’ll be confident and forceful while questioning a witness…but he’s always cynical, always stubborn, and always determined to shrug off the inconvenience of a weak heart to get his client off the hook.  More often than not he’s an absolute bastard, but boy is he a fun bastard to watch, beginning and ending with his playfully bitter exterior.  He might not always do the right thing, somewhat blinded by his sense of duty, but he thinks he’s always doing the right thing, and for better or worse, that’s what makes him one hell of a lawyer.  If only there was even more focus on the lawyer than on an over-the-top Tyrone Power as the wrong place, wrong time victim and even more over-the-top Marlene Dietrich as double-crossing foreigner as the main players in a more and more open-and-shut case, then this shit could’ve been beautiful.


Act II (Being a reaction to the last 5 minutes of “Witness for the Prosecution”)


Well, Billy Wilder and Agatha Christie (with some help from the Hayes Code in the final, FINAL act of comeuppance that goes above and beyond the absurdest of the absurd) just did their best Ashton Kutcher impression, ‘cuz I just got PUNKED.  Might as well disregard EVERYTHING I wrote before this 😆 .  I…don’t know what to say about that ending.  It’s absurd, and it’s ingenious.  It’s sudden to the point of being thrown at you, and yet it ties up each and every loose end with shocking efficiency.  It’s insanely over the top and implausible, and yet in five short minutes fabulously changes our perspective on just about everything we’ve soaked in to this point.  In short, it’s the most  – inducing ending you’ll ever see in its sheer absurdity…but you’ll end up  ‘ing…to its sheer absurdity.  One thing’s for sure, it makes this typical courtroom drama, this “world’s earliest Law & Order episode” (my own words 😛 ) much more interesting in hindsight.  Naturally, the one person who doesn’t get caught up in all the absurdity, all the madness, is Wilfrid the Fox – still as spry, as mischievous, as cynical, as duty-oriented a barrister as when this was allegedly a slam-dunk case.  God bless Charles Laughton.


3 comments so far

  1. Gloria on

    Act II of yout comments is grand! It sort of sums up the twist end, without giving it up!

    And God bless Charlie! (he’s my favourite actor ;D)

  2. Allison on

    Too many emoticons. This film is a 10/10. You are WRONG. But you’re still my friend.

  3. Simon M. on

    how else could I have expressed how absurd and what-the-fuck-just-happend that ending was? Words couldn’t possibly do it justice.

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