Witness for the Prosecution
directed by Billy Wilder
(MGM, 1957)

There's a great moment in Witness for the Prosecution when Marlene Dietrich, as Christine Vole, faces the attorney who may defend her husband Leonard against murder charges. Concerned there will be hysterics and fainting spells, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) advises her to bring smelling salts to the trial. "I never faint," Dietrich says, perfect eyebrow arched, beautifully angled face betraying no emotion. "And I never use smelling salts because they puff up the eyes. I am Christine Vole." Take that, Sir Wilfrid!

Witness for the Prosecution -- the 1957 film, not the lackluster 1980s made-for-TV version -- is full of great dialogue like that, stellar performances by many great 20th-century names either in the thick of their careers or in their twilight, and a series of plot twists that are enough to make author Agatha Christie, who also handled the screenplay, proud.

In some ways, Witness is a movie entirely of its time. Christine is the war bride of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a former chanteuse and actress whisked away from the rubble of post-war Germany to the stability of post-war Britain. (Christine is referred to often, by other characters and in newspaper headlines of the day, as the "German wife," the "German bride.") Leonard's not a prodigious provider, not often employed. His biggest success to date seems to be inventing a newfangled rotary beater which he sells door-to-door.

With some of his free time, he befriends a woman of a certain vintage and a certain wealth. He charms her and visits often, until she turns up dead. Leonard's the main suspect, professing ignorance of the fortune the dead woman has willed him. And Christine is his alibi -- but what Sir Wilfrid can't fathom is whether Christine is lying to save her husband or telling the truth.

Witness for the Prosecution is a masterwork of deception, lies and truth when you least expect it. For a generation weaned on courtroom dramas like The Practice or Ally McBeal -- both of which have their great moments -- Witness is a great lesson in pacing, suspense and impeccable timing.

Leonard Vole was the last role for Power, who died the following year while filming his next movie. He's stunning as the bewildered accused, as the betrayed husband, as the snake-oil charmer.

It was one of the last roles, too, for Laughton, who plays a barrister pushing off death a little longer for the thrill of the courtroom brawl. Laughton would die a few short years later. In Witness, he is the picture of a man who has lived for his career, and has little desire to retire to Bermuda without his career. Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, who would follow Witness a few years later with the '60s classic Mary Poppins, appears as Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid's flighty nurse. The back-and-forth between the two, bickering yet increasingly affectionate, adds humor to an often dark theme.

And Dietrich embraces her part as if she were born to it. We even get a glimpse of one of those famous legs in a highly choreographed plot twist designed, well, to show off a glimpse of those famous legs. Her hauteur is something to be reckoned with.

It's a brilliant production from the brilliant director Billy Wilder in the midst of his heyday, following The Seven Year Itch and The Spirit of St. Louis with Witness, and, two years later in an entirely different vein, Some Like It Hot.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 27 October 2001

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