Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Man, I loved this movie. Loved! I went into it a bit leerily, as 1) I'm not particularly fond of courtroom stuff, and 2) my dad had spoiled the ending a couple months back. Silly me. It had me hooked from the first lines of dialogue between Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster. Well, really, it had me when Billy Wilder's name went by as part of the screenwriting duo and as director. The man makes wickedly smart movies.

The rest of the movie delighted me primarily because of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster. They are absolutely delightful butting heads as a barrister recovering from a heart attack and his pesky no-nonsense nurse.

Laughton's character of Sir Wilfrid is supposed to relax and do nothing that might cause him stress, and, of course, to force a brilliant man to sit around doing nothing is sheer torture. So he neatly side-steps his way into a murder trial defending Tyrone Power because he can't resist jumping at a challenge. Poor Tyrone's character, Leonard, is accused of bumping off a lonely old widow (the wonderfully endearing Norma Varden!) for the inheritance she's going to leave him.

There's a great exchange between Leonard's wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), and the lawyer working with Sir Wilfrid, regarding Leonard's, ahem, relationship with the murdered woman. The lawyer, mincing around the topic, Marlene Dietrich's character unfazed and pragmatic. Cracked me up:

Brogan-Moore: 'Quite obviously, Mrs. French should come to look upon your husband as a son, or perhaps a favorite nephew.'
Christine Vole: 'You think Mrs. French looked upon Leonard as a son? Or a nephew?'
Brogan-Moore: 'I do. An entirely natural and understandable relationship.'
Christine Vole: 'What hypocrits you are in this country.'

The movie's nothing but fabulous dialogue. And the way the plot unfolds really is ingenious. But it would still be nothing without Charles Laughton in the lead role. He is utterly perfect, sneaking cigars and brandy behind Elsa Lancaster's back with as much relish as he has questioning witnesses and trying to get Tryone off the hook. I mostly know him as an actor from Mutiny on the Bounty, but I really need to find more things he's done. It surprised me a little how funny he was in this movie. His little smirk as he goofs off on the staircase lift; his delight in pulling one over on Elsa Lancaster. He made me laugh aloud more than once with the little quirky things he did. I also did not know until after I watched this film that Laughton and Lancaster were married for over thirty years!

Tyrone Power does a very good job with his role too, which is actually a rather difficult one, and not fully appreciated until you reach the end of the movie and can look back over the whole thing. He swings easily from jaunty and unconcerned, to worried, to histrionic, and back again, as needed. The trivia notes on IMDb say that William Holden was the first choice for Leonard. That would also have worked quite well. Interestingly, it got me wondering how Sunset Blvd. might have worked with Tyrone Power as Joe Gillis. I often try actors in a mental, alternate versions of Sunset Blvd., wondering how they'd fare, if put to it. I think Tyrone would have done quite nicely. But he reminds me of Holden on occasion. Both handsome and devil-may-care, both a bit shady when they want to be, both good with characters who accept the easy route even as it eats them up inside (thinking Nightmare Alley here for Tyrone, but there're other examples too), both able to charm women, young and old.

I'm not particularly a fan of Marlene Dietrich, but I also haven't seen her in very much. Her first scene with Charles Laughton, where you expect one thing from her and get quite another... her natural aloofness is used to advantage. Her character is one of constant surprises, and she conveys a lot with just an arched eyebrow. Though I also craved someone like Barbara Stanwyck for this role, just because Marlene Dietrich often seems one-note, and Stanwyck can play cold but is anything but. Dietrich seems to lack depth sometimes, but I think that might be a weird illusion. I'd have to see her in more things. And she does get to some fun, unexpected moments in this one. Besides, for a woman in her mid-fifties when this was made, she sure looks fabulous. There are women in their thirties who don't look as good.

All in all, a very satisfying film.


  1. I love this one as well!!! I watched it for the first time during my Marlene Dietrich phase, and she did not disappoint me. Laughton, as always, manages to be abrasive and wonderful all at once. Have you seen his only directorial endeavor, "Night of the Hunter?" It's great, and a shame he didn't direct more.

  2. I've seen this many times-- each time just as entertaining despite the fact that I already know how it will end ;)

    For me, though, knowing that William Holden was the first choice kind of ruined Tyrone Power for me. I really think William Holden would have been so much better and I just keep picturing him instead!

    ps. don't Charles Laughton & Elsa Lanchester make a cute couple?!

  3. Yay, I love this movie!

    Charles & Elsa really are the best parts!

    Although I think Tyrone did absolutely splendid (Kate needs to be quiet! ;-D)!

    I really do love all your Tyrone Power centered posts lately!

  4. Meredith - I love your description of "abrasive and wonderful all at once." It's so true! Yep, I've seen "Night of the Hunter" and thought he did a great directing job. It's really too bad he didn't more. I think we lost out on a gifted director when he didn't do any more.


    Kate - I watched the movie twice, and if anything, I enjoyed it more the second time than the first. You know WH's my favorite, and I would have loved to see him in this, but I'm actually glad he didn't do it. For the way the Leonard character develops, I'd rather watch Tyrone in the role. Dang... can't really explain what I mean without spoilering, though you can probably guess where I'm going with this line of thought. :-D

    And yes, they are a cute couple! Love!!

    Millie - I'm with you on Tyrone in this one. :-D

    There'll be a few more Tyrone posts cuz I haven't run out of his movies yet and I'm not tired of watching him. Like that could happen. LOL!

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