Saturday, June 11, 2016

Order in the Court Blogathon - Witness for the Prosecution

This post is an entry in the Order in the Court Blogathon hosted by Second Sight Cinema and Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch.

What can I say about Witness for the Prosecution other than it is a great movie. There is a surprise ending. That is all I'm going to say. Well, yes, I do need to discuss aspects of the plot, but I'll avoid even hinting at it. The end of the film was even kept secret to the cast and crew. According to IMDB, the principal actors did not learn the ending until the final day of shooting, when the last ten pages of the script was given to them. The film contains a disclaimer over the closing credits, asking audience members to not reveal the ending. It was reported that at a Royal Command Screening of the film, members of the Royal family were asked to promise to not reveal the ending. Even the movie poster urged viewers to not reveal the ending.`

Witness for the Prosecution is an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play of the same name, based on one of her early short stories. Christie said it was the only film adaptation of her work that she actually liked. Years later, she said similar of Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Tyrone Power said it was one of only three movies he was particularly proud of. The film was nominated for 6 Oscars: 
  • Best Picture
  • Best Actor for Charles Laughton 
  • Best Supporting Actress for Elsa Lanchester 
  • Best Director for Billy Wilder 
  • Best Sound, Recording
  • Best Film Editing
Conspicuous in its absence is the lack of a nomination for Marlene Dietrich as Best Actress. Her performance ties into the surprise ending, and the studio downplayed her role to keep the film's secret. Dietrich was devastated by the snub. The film also was nominated for five Golden Globes, including a win for Elsa Lanchester as Best Supporting Actress and a nomination for Marlene Dietrich as Best Actress.

*** The following paragraph contains minor spoilers of the plot. ***

Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a man accused of murder, but who maintains his innocence. Charles Laughton is a lawyer fresh out of the hospital after recovering from a heart attack, under strict orders to avoid anything strenuous, such as a murder trial. After discussing the case with Power, Laughton believes him and agrees to take the case, at least partially to get out from under the thumb of his overbearing nurse, played by Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester. Power is something of a ne'er do well, unable to hold a job, and is accused of murdering a rich widow he befriended. Tyrone Power's wife (Marlene Dietrich) is a former cabaret singer, that he rescued from the rubble of Post-War Germany, and she is portrayed as a gold digger.

From what I read, critics thought that Tyrone Power was too old for the role of Leonard Vole. It never even occurred to me. He seemed age-appropriate for Marlene Dietrich (in reality, he was more than ten years younger than Dietrich). According to IMDB, Dietrich had a crush on Power during the filming, and Billy Wilder said that Charles Laughton had a crush on Power as well. Personally, I like him in the role. He is good as the bewildered man accused of a crime he didn't commit.

Witness for the Prosecution has to be my favorite role for Marlene Dietrich. She is absolutely great. Looking at the other nominees for best actress that year, it's a crime that she was not at least nominated. Charles Laughton is brilliant as the lawyer. His character combines a keen legal mind with the personality of a mischievous little boy as he sneaks brandy and cigars, whenever his nurse's back is turned. Elsa Lanchester is one of my favorite character actress. She has a way of making an impression in a small role and that is surely the case here. Rounding out the cast are Norma Varden as the murdered widow and Una O'Connor as her maid. Both are great.

I don't want to discuss details of the case for fear of giving away too much of the plot. It is interesting that the film is set in England, to see the differences in their legal system, most notably the judge and barristers (lawyers) wearing wigs. 

The twist ending is one of the best ever filmed. I totally did not see it coming. With a director like Billy Wilder, it's easy to overlook really great films over their more famous films. I think that is at least somewhat the case here. Billy Wilder has a way of turning genre films on their ears, film noirs that are about people who aren't really criminals or comedies with a sense of pathos. In Witness for the Prosecution, Wilder combines a murder mystery with interesting characters and tosses in a great ending. The results are spectacular and one of the best courtroom dramas ever put on film.


  1. I wish my local library would replace their copy of this. It's all scratched up and doesn't play fluidly. So I have yet to see it all at one time.

    1. I feel your pain. I only saw the first time in the last two or three years. Not sure how I missed it. I ended up buying the DVD, just because it's not one of those films that you see often.

  2. It is surprising that Marlene Dietrich wasn't nominated for this film. It truly is a stand-out performance, which is saying something considering her filmography.

  3. Great post. I love this film. Agreed that Marlene was terrific, but the entire case was perfect. as for Power, I think his slightly world-worn look added to the character.

    1. The world-worn look works for me too, beaten down but mostly his own doing. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Thanks for your excellent review of one of those movies that never fail to satisfy. Even after you know the ending, the movie is still a lot of fun on subsequent viewings because it's just so *good*—the dialogue, the performances, Wilder's sure hand. It's an adaptation of an Agatha Christie, isn't it? I wonder how closely they hewed to the source material?

    Thank you for being a part of our blogathon, Chris!

    Lesley / Second Sight Cinema

  5. The ending made me speechless, and I was amazed by how wonderful this movie is. I think Tyrone is not too old for the role, but unfortunately he looked even older than he was and wouldn't live much longer after this movie.
    I remember I saw a picture of Marlene signing a board on the studio promising she wouldn't tell the end to anyone!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  6. I showed my daughter this film when she was a teenager and that surprise ending made her leap from her chair and exclaim "That was freaking awesome!". I'd say that about sums up "Witness for the Prosecution".

  7. Wow- I never knew all that behind the scenes crushes- that must have made filming really interesting. i first saw this film after my very good professor turned friend said I had to watch it- and yes like you said- he only told me there was a surprise ending- and that I would love it- he was right! Its an awesome ending!

  8. Hi Chris ~ Thanks so much for joining our blogathon. "Witness for the Prosecution" is among the best of examples of a courtroom drama that classic Hollywood had to offer. Thanks again!