Monday, March 11, 2013

Flick of the Day: Witness for the Prosecution

Charles Laughton is one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver screen and yet he is not anything like the kind of household name of a Brando or DeNiro or in receipt of the same plaudits as Olivier or Gielgud. A versatile talent he worked until his premature death in 1962 from liver cancer with starring roles in classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Hobson's Choice. A fine entry in his later career work is today's flick of the day, Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play of the same name from writer and director Billy Wilder.
Laughton fills the role, in every sense of the word, the role of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, an eminent barrister and legal scholar who at the films open is recovering from a recent heart attack despite his own best efforts to the contrary. He is determined to return to his legal practice despite the opposition of his nurse Miss Plimsoll played by Laughton's own wife Elsa Lanchester. However a most interesting case soon falls into his lap, that of a down at heel inventor named Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power as an Englishman with an inexplicable American accent, who has been accused of the murder of a wealthy widow. His only defence is the alibi of his wife, an immigrant whom he rescued from the ravages of post war Germany played by the excellent Marlene Dietrich. Sir Wilfrid is immediately suspicious of Vole's wife and of her willingness to appear in his defence though there is no doubt in his mind that Vole is an innocent man. He launches himself into a new trial putting his health in danger to defend an innocent man whilst investigating the machinations of Vole's supposedly loving wife.
Billy Wilder could easily lay claim to being one of the great director's of Hollywood's golden age with a filmography to rival anyone including highlights such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. He is on top form here, carefully weaving the various strands of the tale into a suspenseful legal thriller. Of course it helps when the cast is as strong as that on offer here. Laughton dominates the screen both with his immense bulk and his deep booming diction, a performance perfectly suited to that of a barrister. Dietrich and Power are equally strong with Power giving one of his final performances before his untimely death while filming Solomon and Sheba in Spain.
Wilder was always a director who could turn his hand to any kind of film and in this case, he manages to transcend the genre of courtroom thriller to make a film that is enjoyable and thrilling in equal measure. It doesn't really have any weak elements and would have surely swept the board at the 1958 Oscars were it for the stiff upper lip juggernaut that was The Bridge on the River Kwai. He deviates from Christie's play by inserting humour into the script where it can bare it such as the verbal back and forth between Laughton and his put upon nurse. 
While the ending might stretch the believability stakes in an attempt to keep the film from falling foul of the Production Code which stated that crime must not go unpunished, it is an entertaining drama all the same. If for no other reason then to admire Laughton at somewhere not even near his best, this is a film worth seeing.

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