Saturday, January 5, 2013

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution is one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever committed to film. It is one of the masterpieces produced by director Billy Wilder in the decade where he gave us Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. The film has a great cast, beautiful black-and- white cinematography, and a sharp script co-written by Wilder that is based on an Agatha Christie play.

In the movie, Charles Laughton plays aging barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts. Recovering from a heart attack, Sir Wilfred accepts the case of American Leonard Vole, who has been accused of the murder of a wealthy widow. Sir Wilfred believes in Vole's innocence, but is surprised at trial when Vole's wife, the German Christine Helm, testifies against Vole. Movie star Tyrone Power is effective as Vole. Marlene Dietrich is riveting as Helm, the witness for the prosecution.

Laughton infuses the character of Sir Wilfred with dry humor, cynicism, and an engaging crustiness. It is a wonderful performance for the ages, and Laughton was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Witness for the Prosecution also deservedly received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. The supporting actress nod went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife, who portrayed Sir Wilfred's fussy, no-nonsense nurse.

The story of Witness for the Prosecution would have made a compelling mystery film in the capable hands of any competent movie director. I think there are three major components that elevate this film into greatness -- Laughton's masterful performance, Dietrich's screen presence, and most importantly, Wilder's taut, self-assured, and witty direction. Every aspect of the film's production values is top-notch.

1957 appears to be a good year for quality movies. Competitors with Witness for the Prosecution in the Oscar's Best Picture category included Sayonara, Peyton Place, 12 Angry Men, and the winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. While the best movie seems to have won that year, all five of the nominees are exceptional films. Laughton lost his Oscar bid to fellow Brit Alec Guinness. I had always believed Guinness's win was deserved until I saw Witness for the Prosecution. I need to re-watch The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I would probably still pick Guinness over Laughton -- though it's a shame that Laughton's work had to go unrewarded. Also -- as great as Wilder's direction is -- he lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai's David Lean, and I can't quibble with that outcome either

Witness for the Prosecution surpassed my expectations. It is a movie of its time, but it has also aged very well. Grade: A.

I watched this movie on Netflix Streaming on August 13, 2012.

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