Top critical review
Drawing Room Comedy that Contains Incidental Courtroom Drama
on 18 April 2017
Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Set in Great Britain, 1953. In this well-known, considered classic film, screen legends Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, supported by legions of well-known transatlantic actors, star. It is based on one of the most famous works of Agatha Christie, British mystery author, bestselling novelist worldwide of all time. The work was honored first as an iconic 20 page short story; then a hit theatrical play that enjoyed long runs on both sides of the Atlantic, written by Christie herself; then this hit all-star Hollywood movie, based on the play, with script written by Harry Kurnitz, and the brilliant European director in exile Billy Wilder who also directed.
Returning to work following a heart attack, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, (Charles Laughton), known as a barrister for the hopeless, (barrister: a lawyer permitted to practice in that country’s courts), takes on a murder case, much to the exasperation of his medical team, led by his overly protective private nurse, Miss Plimsoll, (Elsa Lanchester). Plimsoll is determined to prevent Robarts’ return to his hard living ways - including excessive cigar smoking and drinking, particularly brandy – odd, that, two of famed British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill’s favorite vices-- while he takes his medication and gets his much needed rest. That murder case is defending American war veteran Leonard Vole, (Tyrone Power), a handsome young man, out of work, a struggling inventor who is accused of murdering his fifty-six year old lonely, wealthy widowed acquaintance, Mrs. Emily French, who presented in a particularly stereotyped way, as a foolish middle-aged woman. Initial evidence is circumstantial but points to Vole as the murderer. Mind you, Vole was seemingly happily married to East German former beer hall performer Christine Vole, (Marlene Dietrich), whom he met during the occupation of Germany at the end of World War II. Yet he fostered that friendship with Mrs. French in the hopes that she would finance one of his many inventions to the tune of a few hundred pounds. He is now accused by Mrs. French’s longtime devoted housekeeper of the murder of Mrs. French; he does, indeed, stand to profit from the vast fortune the victim had left him in her will. Soon enough, he finds himself standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, on trial for his life. But he is not fighting these charges alone: Leonard is adamant that the testimony of his wife Christine will prove his innocence.
This glossy black and white film, which was entirely made in the studio, evidently threw money at the screen. The named characters are many, well-cast; there are many extras, vehicles, interiors are lush, etc. The movie introduced the character of Miss Plimsoll: she’s not in story or play. This was done so as to give the part to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife, give husband and wife a chance to trade cute barbs. The film was set in 1953, a few years before it was made. As the European theater of World War II had closed in 1944, not much is made of that conflict in the film, though its principals must have been affected by that war. Whether they suffered, as we now know it, Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, (PTSD) that influenced their actions, we are never to know. The popular star vehicle is also evidently set among the upper crust of society, Tyrone Power as Vole may be poor, but he is clearly of smooth upper class origins; in fact the film is largely what would have been called back then a drawing room comedy that contains an incidental courtroom drama.
The picture was nominated for six Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton) and Supporting Actress (Lanchester). Many, if not most, people will be acquainted with the courtroom drama at the core of this movie. If it’s new to you, however, be ready for its famous triple shock ending. Recommended to new viewers.