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WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)
A well-known, successful English defense attorney, can't resist taking on a challenging case, where circumstantial evidence all points to the defendant's guilt.
The cast includes: Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester, Norma Varden, John Williams, Henry Daniell, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher, Una O'Connor, Philip Tonge, and Francis Compton.
Adapted from an Agatha Christie short story.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION received six Oscar nominations. Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Laughton), Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Supporting Actress (Elsa Lanchester), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. Unfortunately, not one of these well deserved nominations won the Oscar.
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Promotional Line: "Once in 50 years suspense like this!"
A well-known, successful English defense attorney, recovering from a heart attack, can't resist taking on another challenging case, where circumstantial evidence all points to the defendant's guilt.
"Witness for the Prosecution," adapted from an Agatha Christie short story, is a gripping, riveting London court room drama, that finds London's top defense attorney, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) defending a man who is accused of murder. This defendant, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), has overwhelming circumstantial evidence that fingers him as the killer of a rich widow, Mrs. French (Norma Varden). It seems that Mrs. French had taken a liking to this inventor, in need of money, and had put him in her will as the sole beneficiary of her whole estate. His only alibi resides with his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who decides to be a witness for the prosecution.
The story opens with Sir Wilfrid Robarts enduring a forced convalescence, recovering from a heart attack he had previously suffered in court. All under his concerned doctor's orders, Sir Wilfrid is under the watchful eye of conscientious Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), his nurse, who not only administers his medication, keeps him on a strict schedule, but also deprives him of his much beloved cigars and brandy. Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who is chaffing under such close supervision, and doing his best to sneak a smoke and drink as well, decides to take this challenging defense case, despite his doctor's advice to stick to bland, civil court cases. He makes a deal with his doctor to forever quit murder cases and take a vacation to Bermuda, after this last case.
Although, he isn't absolutely sure of his new client's innocence, he believes enough in Leonard's innocence to come up with a defense, based on theories that explain his client's behavior, and that discredit other witnesses. What threatens to sink the defense, however, is his client's wife, who switches sides to be a prosecution witness.
This wonderful screenplay, full of twists and turns, false misdirections, and a phenomenal surprise twist ending, was written by Billy Wilder, Larry Marcus, and Harry Kurnitz, and brings the spirit of Christie's story to the big screen, in a very entertaining fashion, that is sure to please murder mystery enthusiasts.
The brilliant pacing and direction by the talented Billy Wilder not only results in the full potential of this classic screenplay being realized, but also showcases the talent of the gifted cast, who were given a terrific script to shine through with their considerable talents. Their ensemble work together is also top-notch. The script teases the audience, keeping them guessing who is up to what, who is truly guilty, how Sir Wilfrid will try to come up with a defense strategy to save his client, and who is going to prevail.
Charles Laughton is superb as the clever Sir Wilfrid as he skillfully tries to tackle this difficult case inside and outside of the courtroom. It's easy to see why he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. This is easily one of his best efforts.
Elsa Lanchester's fine supporting performance earned her the Best Supporting Actress nomination, as the determined and frustrated nurse, who has a most difficult assignment, as she has to match wits with Sir Wilfrid.
The chemistry between Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester sparkles on screen, as Elsa tries to deal with her unco-operative patient. Their banter is amusing, as their comic timing together is perfect. They bounce their lines off each other effortlessly and naturally. As their relationship grows, they mend their differences, as the trial proceeds. Charles and Elsa were married in real life, when they did this picture together.
Marlene Dietrich, as Christine Vole, gives the best performance of her career, and many feel she should've gotten an Oscar nomination also. She pulls off her complicated character without a hitch, and is very convincing, having fun confusing the audience and other characters in the story.
Tyrone Power, as Leonard Vole, also gives a fine performance, and also has fun keeping everyone guessing to what his true character is, and if he did the evil deed or not. Sadly, this film was his last before his untimely death.
My favorite scenes take place in the courtroom, which are all done to perfection, offering great dramatic tension, suspense, and keeping the audience guessing what is going to happen next. The Laughton and Dietrich scenes are especially powerful, as he cross examines her, trying to pull out of her what she is hiding, and the real reason she is testifying against her husband.
"Witness for the Prosecution" is an absolute classic in its genre, and is highly recommended for viewing. It truly is "a movie to watch right till the end."