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Monday, March 15, 2010
Movie Review Monday~ Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
STARRING: CHARLES LAUGHTON, ELSA LANCHESTER, MARLENE DEITRICH
DIRECTED BY: BILLY WILDER
Witness for the Prosecution is an Agatha Christie short story and it has been reported that this is the only film version of her work that she herself was completely happy about. It is a phenomenal little movie; I say 'little movie' because it is pretty light fare, even w/ the heavy subject matter.
The story follows ailing defense lawyer, Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) as he is released from the hospital after a serious heart attack. His doctor has instructed him to avoid stressful cases in court, alcohol, and smoking-all things that he loves and which he is quick to recommence regardless of doctor's orders. All of this happens beneath the strict watch of his endearingly militant nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, the real life wife of Laughton in a role that was created principally for her since the character did not exist in the novel). Soon after his return home, Robarts is approached with exactly the type of case his doctor would warn against, a seemingly innocent man being charged w/ the murder of an elderly woman. The accused man, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), feels the charge is rediculous and claims that his own wife, Christine (Marlene Deitrich), would be able to support his allibi at the supposed time of murder. However, upon interviewing said wife, Robarts realizes that the matter may not be quite so simple since she herself seems intent on condemning her husband. What follows is a wonderful courtroom drama replete with great performances, fun twists, and plenty of wit.
In spite of the multitude of acclaimed English thespians in this movie, Laughton runs away with the movie (metaphorically of course; I doubt the poor man could have 'run' anywhere if his life depended upon it). He is a perfect mix of humor, smarts, and subtlety-while at the same time huffing his giant frame around the set like a petulant child when it comes to evading the watchful eye of Miss Plimsoll and her little white pills. His reactions to the inevitable plot twists are painstakingly heartfelt in their delivery; it is a brilliant performance. In addition, Lanchester is wonderful as the charmingly devoted Miss Plimsoll and Tyrone Power is better than usual as Leonard Vole-a sympathetic hero indeed. Finally, how can we overlook the wonderfully layered performance of Marlene Deitrich as Christine Vole? She accomplished so much in this movie, making us feel the dilemma she faces-her cold sense of duty amid the obvious confusion of her husband who evidently holds her on a pedestal and loves her to distraction. I can't say more about her acting because it would partly give away the 'twist' of this story but if you've seen it-you know how good she is.
Billy Wilder adapts this story flawlessly to the screen and succeeds in something many directors have tried and failed, making the film version worlds more involving than the book. Even Christie would agree, I think.
This is one for the shelf. Even after repeat viewings, I find myself in just as much suspense-knowing full well how it ends but somehow still holding my breath for its exciting conclusion.
My rating: 9/10
Style Score: Marlene Dietrich has always been a 'cold' sort of screen goddess. Her style is undeniable but not necessarily up my alley. Still, I give her austere looks and the brevity of wearing 1930's makeup in a late 50's film, a solid score of