While not amongst the greater, more celebrated titles in Billy Wilder’s acclaimed filmography, his big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution boasts a fine, scenery-chewing performance by Charles Laughton, here playing a cantankerous barrister defending a murder suspect.
Leonard Vole (a miscast Tyrone Power, in his last screen appearance before dropping dead of a heart attack aged 44) has been arrested for the brutal murder of a Hampstead socialite. Is he innocent or guilty? Taking his case is Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton), a lawyer who loves nothing more than a challenge to keep his mind and legal skills sharp.
Wilder described Witness for the Prosecution as his “Hitchcock picture”. While it doesn’t particularly feel Hitchcockian (neither Christie’s nor Wilder’s approach to suspense narrative matches Hitchcock’s cinematic principles), the Austrian-American director has a lot of fun with the courtroom drama setting, injecting noir-like elements into proceedings and telling a story which though absurd is full of the director’s infamous biting dialogue, cynicism and ironic imagery. There is absolute skill on Wilder’s part in holding our attention from start to finish, aided too by a winning supporting cast including Elsa Lanchester, Marlene Dietrich and Una O’Connor.
Laughton knocks it out of the park as Robarts, and his scenes with real-life missus Lanchester are hysterical, the dialogue packed with vicious barbs, such as the barrister griping at his live-in nurse’s overbearing nature: “If you were a woman, I’d strike you.” The couple clearly revelled in playing together on-screen, verbally sparring. Witness for the Prosecution marked the last time they did so before Laughton’s death in 1962.
Masters of Cinema make it their raison d’être to offer excellent high def picture and sound quality, along with must-read accompanying booklets. This one contains newly written essays on the film by Phillip Kemp and Henry K. Miller. On the disc itself, there’s a commentary track by historian Kat Ellinger, who discusses Wilder’s movie as a transitional work (it was his last noir-themed effort) and other bonus material, such as an extract from a 1990s Billy Wilder doc, Laughton expert Simon Callow talking about the film and video interview with scholar Neil Sinyard.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn