Billy Wilder’s 1957 legal drama, Witness for the Prosecution, adapted from Agatha Christie’s play of the same name, features a compelling tale of a British barrister and his defense of his client who is standing trial for murder. The trial is rife with drama as new, unforeseen developments unfold over its course. The writing, acting, direction, and overall presentation factor into the film being one of the best legal and crime dramas to hit the silver screen.
The film’s story follows Sir Wilfrid Roberts, an experienced British barrister, who is recovering from health issues. Shortly after his return to the office, Roberts is introduced to Leonard Vole and his case. Vole is accused of murder and appears to be drowning in circumstantial evidence tying him to the crime. Roberts attempts to pass the case off to a friend as he is only supposed to accept a light workload as he fully recovers. However, Roberts ends up taking the lead in Vole’s multi-day, sensational trial.
The film’s pacing is brilliant. Viewers are introduced to Roberts and his nurse, Miss Plimsoll, from the film’s onset. Roberts ostensibly detests the lifestyle changes he must make moving forward. As a result, he treats Miss Plimsoll in a rather insolent-yet-humorous way because she is tasked with monitoring his health and actions. This underlying side story offers comedic elements and a nice change of pace from the case’s drama. The way in which these stories and their own paces intersect is seamless and it does not yield any issues.
In terms of the case, the introduction of Vole to Roberts is handled well. Throughout the film, elements of exposition are effectively used to provide additional context for Roberts and the audience alike. The twists and turns in the case and its trial are presented naturally and grip the audience’s attention, all while adding new components for the viewers’ own prognostications about the outcome.
Connected to the pace is the film’s dramatic and comedic tone. As expected, the dramatic elements are addressed through Witness for the Prosecution’s legal and crime elements. This is expertly balanced by the humorous sequences with Roberts and Miss Plimsoll, especially as they illustrate Roberts’ idiosyncrasies. The suspense and drama is neatly described by Roberts himself as being “horror fiction,” in that the trial and its serpentine nature have become sensationalized. Luckily for audiences, this makes for quite an entertaining film.
The performances from both the principal and supporting roles are terrific. The main cast of Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich all provide inspired performances. Simply put, Stanislavski would be proud of the performances in this film. Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid Roberts is simultaneously rude and charming. Laughton’s portrayal of Roberts’ eccentric traits brings the character to life in a great way. Laughton also does a great job conveying Roberts’ biting sense of humor while showing his litigious brilliance.
Tyrone Power’s Leonard Vole is enthralling. Power displays Vole’s emotional turmoil throughout his ordeal with such ease that his performance offers current actors with a great template for acting a passionate and hopeless manner. Viewers can really see the toll the trial has taken on Vole. Yet one core critique remains: Power’s character seems to be the only one in the film that is acted sans accent. It is a rather odd occurrence, indeed. If there is some reason for this, such as Vole being an American fighting for the Royal Air Force, then it was not clear in the final cut. Moreover, this issue should have been caught and corrected during the film’s production.
Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Christine, Vole’s wife, is also very strong. The way in which Dietrich demonstrates Christine’s demeanor and intelligence is remarkable and iconic. Furthermore, the effortless manner by which Dietrich can influence the audience is astounding and speaks to her strong ability as an actress.
Elsa Lanchester’s supporting role of Miss Plimsoll provides a nice balance with Roberts’ character and traits. Lanchester was often typecast into nurse or maid-type supporting roles, but she always delivered strong performances and Witness for the Prosecution is evidence of that. Her on-screen chemistry with Laughton is delightful and will likely be a takeaway from viewers.
Russell Harlan’s cinematography in Witness for the Prosecution is impressive. Some sequences are shot in a noir and low key light style. These shots accentuate the characters and the narrative beats being communicated in those respective moments. Harlan’s compositions are all very intentional. Nothing is out of place or needlessly included in any shot.
There are a nice variety of shots utilized throughout the film. From scenes showing Roberts using the reflection in his monocle as a “screening” tactic, to close-ups that encapsulate the characters’ emotions, to over-the-shoulder shots, to compositions that are either deep focus or ones that highlight the foreground or background, all are all great to behold. Daniel Mandell’s editing compliments the cinematography. This is evident particularly in the fluid way in which the flashback sequences are introduced. From a cinematographic standpoint (and overall, for that matter), every moment of the film is enjoyable.
Witness for the Prosecution also boasts great production design. My favorite sets were Roberts’ office and living quarters. The set design is highly detailed and inspiring. I would not mind having an office like Roberts, which had a good appearance by a padded, “Bond-style” door. The interior of the victim’s house is also great as it features many artifacts and exotic memorabilia.
One of the expository sequences features a roof that partially collapses. This particular design and execution is noteworthy. Additionally, the differences between the American and British courtrooms and trial procedure, at least how it is conveyed in the film, are fun to observe.
Billy Wilder’s direction of Witness for the Prosecution is nothing but masterful. Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus worked on the script and its adaptation from Christie’s mystery tale and the way in which Wilder brings the complex story to life on the screen is wonderful. Further, his management of the production design and the actors’ performances is a testament to his distinguished directing ability. The movie received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Sound, Recording, and Best Film Editing.
In the end, Witness for the Prosecution is a film that should not be missed. The great story, writing, gripping performances, and impressive technical aspects make for a truly inimitable film that is sure to thrill audiences. I was also impressed with the way in which the film addresses preventing spoilers at the film’s end. Few films can create such a memorable (especially for your first viewing), unique cinematic experience; Witness for the Prosecution does so with aplomb.
Distributor: United Artists
Production: Edward Small Productions; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Screenwriter: Agatha Christie (play); Billy Wilder (screenplay); Harry Kurnitz (screenplay); Larry Marcus (adaptation)
Director of Photography: Russell Harlan
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Costume Designer: Joseph King; Edith Head; Adele Parmenter
Casting Director: William Maybery
Art Director: Alexandre Trauner
Production Designer: Howard Bristol
Music Arranger: Leonid Raab
Budget: ca. $3,000,000
Release Date: December 17, 1957 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Copyright Holder: Theme Pictures, Inc.
Cast: Tyrone Power; Marlene Dietrich; Charles Laughton; Elsa Lanchester; John Williams; Henry Daniell; Ian Wolfe; Torin Thatcher; Norma Varden; Una O’Connor; Francis Compton; Philip Tonge; Ruta Lee
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Rating: Approved; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hour and 56 minutes (116 mins.)