Wilder: Witness for the Proseuction (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Dec/120

Wilder: Witness for the Proseuction (1957)

Esteemed criminal lawyer Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just returned to practice after suffering a heart attack and is supposed to be on a diet of bland civil suits. But the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a charmer accused of murdering a rich middle-aged widow, proves irresistible --- particularly when Sir Wilfrid meets the accused's wife, the remarkable Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich). Christine will appear as a witness: not the defense, but for the prosecution.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Witness for the Prosecution is about justice and obsolescence. Have I mentioned that before? It's also a surprisingly good time, mostly spurred on by actor Charles Laughton and his irrepressible grouchiness.

We'd talked about the remake a few months back, and that had left me worried. As much as I love Diana Rigg, as much as I adore Deborah Kerr, it was first and foremost a TV movie and as much as I love TV movies, it was still an average one at that.

Wilder's wheelhouse is a bit darker than that, and his macabre sense of humor works much better. The flashbacks here to Leonard Vole's earlier days as a soldier and as a wacky inventor do help sell him as a bit more innocent, as Tyrone Power wonderfully captures an American sort of 'gee-whiz'ery that expertly hides all his darker leanings.

I really want to touch on the scene in the bar in Berlin where Leonard meets Christine. I couldn't help but be struck by the thought that Marlene Dietrich, again a torch singer, is playing someone very close to her character of Erika Von Schluetow from A Foreign Affair. Sleazier cabaret and a less sleazy woman, I suppose, but this felt like Schluetow broken down and crushed. This makes her innately sympathetic, which helps a great deal as most of the film has her as an unsympathetic robot who seems to be playing her own vicious game.

Her mass assault at the hands of the soldiers is an excellent example of Wilder's cynicism, with the Americans drunk on the power of conquerors and attempting to return to old pastimes. Leonard's the same way, though he covers it up a bit better. He manipulates, cajoles, and smugly plans to ditch the woman who he knows will save his hide. The American ditching the German out of his own greed while the British, who walk around with the utmost pomposity, see their own sense of justice trampled upon. Not the most uplifting of stories.

I also said when we were discussing the TV movie that I didn't feel that the movie stood up, already knowing the twist. I have some thoughts on this now, but how do you feel about it, Ryan?WitnessForTheProsecution575Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating
I have always had a soft spot for this film for many of the reasons you have mentioned. I loved Charles Laughton and his role of a man who should slow down but doesn't know how and his dialogue and delivery was a thing of beauty. I also dig how on the surface it is a glossy mystery/thriller in the vein of author Christie's best adaptations but when you dig a bit it has a bleak core. When we talked about the TV remake I thought it was pretty decent because it kept the surface gloss ticking but upon watching this film again I forgot how much is going on behind the case that the TV movie just glosses over.

One thing I said about the TV version that I liked more was I believed Diane Rigg in the role more because she is much more attractive than Dietrich but I was wrong when I said that. To be manipulated like she is in the movie, the character of Christine Vole needs to be in a state of uncertainty. What better state of uncertainty is there than a gorgeous woman aging and not feeling like the most beautiful woman in the room anymore? This wouldn't work for Rigg because she was gorgeous but maybe for Dietrich it would work.

I love your thought that Dietrich is playing an alternate version of her character from A Foreign Affair because I could see this becoming what would happen to Von Schluetow if she would have gone with Pringle and if Pringle was a bit more of an SOB.

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Exactly! Which brings me to another thing I liked about this version (and some big spoilers follow): when Dietrich dons her disguise to fool Laughton, we see her in full daylight. While Rigg spent her time confined to the shadows, we instead see the informant in broad daylight; it's much more of a gambit on Wilder's behalf, but it works. The disguise is flawless.And I like what you're saying about Christine's mindset. She's an actress, a singer, and obsessed with her own position. She can't bear to be thought of as dispensable, something I'm sure wasn't two far from Dietrich's mind as she entered her third decade in motion pictures.Laughton is the big attraction here, as much as I love Dietrich. He's a crank, and doing his damnedest to spit in the face of death. I was amazed as he bought Leonard Vole's story of innocence, but that seems a lot more clear as I thought about it. His old tricks-- the monocle reflecting the light, his badgering and sense of satisfaction-- are all betrayed by his own sense of infallibility. He believes Leonard simply because no one else will, and he knows that he can prove himself to be superior by helping the wretched man.

I think Witness is a nice turn back for Wilder, a clean and easier piece that relies on some good acting rather than forced chemistry. It'd be DOA without Laughton or Dietrich, but Wilder makes it work, even if it never feels as urgent as perhaps it should.

WitnessForTheProsecution576Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating

I agree with you that this starts the second great era of Wilder. He moved away from way too broad comedy (for a while at least) and went back to cutting dialogue, wonderful acting and sharp directing. The cast was wonderful and it showed that Wilder could make a movie like this as well as anyone else. The movie does have a twist ending that can overshadow all the other little things but it is earned.

This was one of the first Wilder movies I ever watched and one of the first that I owned. It had been a few years since I had seen this movie and watching it with fresh eyes gave me a new perspective for the flick. I am excited for the era we are moving into because we are hitting another murderer's row of great films.

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Thank god.

Next week: Some Like It Hot (1960)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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