Friday, March 4, 2011


Miss Plimsoll, won't you join me
in a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"?
Sir Wilfrid's Monocle Test never fails!
Christine Vole: Hostile Hottie Witness!
Witness for the Prosecution (WftP), another one of my all-time favorite movies, sizzles, sparkles, and surprises from its opening credits in the Old Bailey, to its rollercoaster twists and turns, to its jaw-dropping climax. In fact, one of the things I love about the plot twists of this 1957 thriller is that they play fair with the audience, unlike so many films that don’t care if a twist doesn’t make a lick of sense as long as viewers get a momentary shock, however cheap and sloppily executed. The Billy Wilder Touch adds cynical wit to his sparkling adaptation of Dame Agatha Christie's suspenseful, internationally-beloved courtroom drama with some of the best lines in a Wilder movie since Double Indemnity, thanks to writers Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus.  Sir Wilfrid’s query about the features of defendant Leonard Vole’s eggbeater, "Is that really desirable?" has become a catchphrase in our household, as well as the title of one of Team Bartilucci's blogs.  Indeed, the only thing keeping me from putting WftP on my list of “Best Alfred Hitchcock Movies That Hitchcock Never Made” is the fact that even Hitchcock himself admitted that courtroom dramas weren’t among his considerable strengths or interests.

Talk about powerhouse stars! Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a.k.a. “Wilfrid the Fox,” a brilliant veteran barrister who won’t let his cardiac health issues stand in the way of helping a client beat a murder rap riddled with circumstantial evidence. This adds extra suspense during the trial as the audience nervously wonders if Sir Wilfrid will keel over with a heart attack from the strain of it all! Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester is a delightful foil for him as his chipper but no-nonsense nurse Miss Plimsoll. Laughton and Lanchester shine in the most engaging performances of their careers, garnering well-deserved Oscar nominations. (WftP also earned nominations for Best Picture, Billy Wilder's direction, Daniel Mandell's editing, and Gordon Sawyer's sound recording, but it was The Bridge on the River Kwai's year.) The comic sparring chemistry between Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll, and the playful warmth and understanding that's grown between them by movie's end (like the nice little bit at the very end with Sir Wilfrid actually smiling and putting his arm around Miss Plimsoll), had my husband Vinnie opining that if another movie was made featuring these characters, Miss Plimsoll would probably end up as Mrs. Robarts before it was over. What a delightful series that could have been, kind of like a British Thin Man (okay, so Laughton was chubby; it makes him cuddly!
) except that Sir Wilfrid would be the eager crime-stopper while Miss Plimsoll would make a show of tut-tutting until she finally went along with Wilfrid the Fox’s schemes, smiling!

Tyrone Power is the client in question, Leonard Vole (look up “Vole” in the dictionary, and you’ll see how devilishly clever the name really is). An unemployed but likable inventor, Leonard’s a real lady-killer, it seems: he’s accused of murdering rich, lonely, aging widow Emily French for her money. Mrs. French is played by one of my favorite character actresses, Norma Varden (of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, among others); Varden and Power work together beautifully in their scenes, portraying Mrs. French’s sweet-natured longing as funny and poignant at the same time.
Speaking of beautiful, Marlene Dietrich is absolutely mesmerizing in both looks and acting talent as Leonard’s German war bride Christine, she of the duplicitous tactics, malleable marriage contract, and unshakable alibi against the gobsmacked Leonard!  Is Christine truly the ultimate bitch, or is there more to her agenda? The entertaining flashbacks that Wilder and company deftly weave throughout the film to give it more verve and movement work beautifully, especially in Christine and Leonard’s sexy meet-cute/fall-in-love/dig-those-legs scenes. Dietrich and Power are dynamic in their scenes, whether it’s love or hate or payback time!  It's a shame Dietrich’s brilliant, multifaceted performance wasn't nominated for an Oscar as well, on account of the producers not wanting to spoil a certain crucial surprise twist. Tyrone Power's usual ever-so-slightly wooden delivery actually serves him well as defendant Leonard Vole; somehow it adds to his air of feckless innocence. Veteran character actors Henry Daniell, John Williams, Ian Wolfe, and Torin Thatcher provide able support, too, with original Broadway cast member Una O'Connor stealing her scenes as Mrs. French's loyal Scottish housekeeper Janet MacKenzie, who’s suspicious and “antag’nistic” to the beleaguered Leonard. Sadly, WftP was the last film for both O’Connor and Power before they died within a year of each other, but what a memorable swansong they had. 

Maybe it’s a British thing, but I was struck by how people took Sir Wilfrid’s cantankerous side in stride.  It’s a refreshing change from what Vinnie calls “gas-permeable people” whose overly-fragile feelings are crushed by any response that’s less than 100% sweet and sensitive. I love how nobody takes Sir Wilfrid’s cranky pronouncements to heart, including Miss Plimsoll, who gives as good as she gets, like when she reveals she knows all about the cigars hidden in his cane (not to mention the brandy he’s squirreled away).

I promised Vinnie I’d carry on the great tradition of not revealing the stunning surprise ending of WftP.  While you’re at it, don’t blab to your friends, either! I’ll only say I'd have paid good money to see the sequel that the ending implies. The film’s suspenseful surprises were so zealously guarded that when WftP was shown in London for a Royal Command Performance, even the Royal Family had to promise beforehand not to reveal the surprise ending to anyone else! Here's the heads-up:

“Notice! To preserve the secret of the surprise ending, patrons are advised NOT to take their seats during the last few minutes of Witness for the Prosecution.”

Looks like Leonard doesn't have a leg to stand on,
but Christine sure does!

Hear Sir Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in their romantic duet, "Baby, It's Cold Outside"!
Here's the YouTube link:


  1. **WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!** I hope folks seeing WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION for the first time haven't already seen Marlene Dietrich's scene-stealing performance in Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL, or they might tumble to the twist finale before they're supposed to! If I recall correctly, when WftP aired on TCM a while back, Robert Osborne mentioned in his intro that Welles helped Dietrich with her "Cockney informant" makeup as a favor.

  2. As Laughton and Lanchester have often been runners-up (if not outright winners) in my regular poll of "Cutest Couple In Hollywood", I tend to share Vinnie's thoughts on how a possible sequel to WFTP might have been arranged. Trying to imagine how the gruff Sir Wilfrid would've courted Miss Plimsoll has provided no end of mental amusement over the years.

    Also, as someone who appreciates Marlene Dietrich in her later years (as opposed to her earlier performances), her presence here is a cherry on top of the generous icing on the WFTP cake. To me, a courtroom drama works best when the two principles are evenly matched in wit and intellect, and Dietrich clearly meets Laughton with blade drawn.

  3. Michael, my friend, once again we're on the same wavelength, in this case regarding the appeal of husband-and-wife team Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester! Ever hear their version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"? If not, well, guess what I found on You Tube? :-) via @youtube

  4. What a great post on WftP...I can't disagree with a word in it (or a comma or an exclamation point). I sometimes almost forget this is a Wilder film believe it or not, and when someone I know recently referred to it as a Hitchcock it took me a second to correct him. Laughton really had the chance to spread his wings as the brilliant and dogged barrister and was a joy to watch. Dietrich had a habit of being astonishing every so often, and WftP was one of those occasions. Power is a bit stiff for me, but he works well enough, particularly with his dark, handsome appeal . Really enjoyed your take on one of Wilder's best.

  5. Aren't you nice! Thanks, Lady Eve; so glad you enjoyed the WftP blog post! Yes, I've known quite a few people who mistook WftP for a Hitchcock film; an understandable mistake, since Billy Wilder's playful yet suspenseful vibe is similar to Hitchcock's at times. I agree with you on all counts, including Power's performance being a little stiff, but he was like that in every film I've seen him in, and anyway, I felt it worked well here **SPOILER ALERT!** because when I first saw WftP on TV as a kid and it turned out Leonard was indeed Mrs. French's killer, I said, "See, I knew he was too good to be true!" :-)

  6. OH NO!! Dorian, I was so intrigued about this movie that I was dying to see it, and you gave away the ending! Ack! Maybe you haven't seen Psycho -- Norman Bates killed everybody while dressed as his mother! So there.

  7. Well, since you use the comment approval thing, my plan isn't going to work, is it? I hope I got you just for a moment, though! I've seen WftP about a million times, and I adore it!

    Just wanted to introduce myself as a fellow CMBA blogger. Mine is called ClassicBecky's Brain Food. I've been around for a while, and I am so glad your blog is in the group. You did a wonderful review of WftP, one of my favorite courtroom dramas, which I'm a sucker for (I guess I should properly say "for which I am a sucker", but it just isn't the same). Another favorite is Anatomy of a Murder. Great stuff!

    Charles Laughton is right at the top of truly great actors. My Dad had me watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was a kid, and I was mesmerized, a fan forever. I was a young teen when I realized he was married to the Bride of Frankenstein, and I remember thinking that was a hoot. Charles and Elsa were marvelous together in WftP -- that relationship stole the show when they were sparring. Your take on the sharp, cantankerous type that Laughton played as being taken in stride, and your husband's description of gas-permeable people is right on. The U.S. does not accept people who are eccentric or different anymore -- we have too many gas-permeable people these days.

    I like your style very much, and plan to be a regular visitor. Come on over and see me sometime ;-). TheLadyEve can vouch for me. At least I think she would....

  8. ClassicBecky, nice "gotcha" there! For a moment, I thought, "Yikes! Maybe I should add more asterisks around my SPOILER ALERTS!" :-) Thanks a million for your compliments about my WftP blog post; I'm honored and flattered! I'm happy you're enjoying my blog posts, because I've begun reading your blog recently, and I'm enjoying it very much. Your current blog post about bosses in movies put a big grin on my face, having had my share of both great and not-so-great bosses. (FTR, my boss of the past few years happens to be not only one of my favorite bosses, but also my favorite cousin on my mother's side of the family. Talk about a win-win situation! :-)) Sounds like you're from a movie-loving family just like mine, lucky you! Becky, I look forward to regularly coming over and seeing you on your blog sometime, and by all means feel free to drop by TotED any time, too!

  9. Just wanted to welcome The Lady Eve as a full-tilt, official-type TotED Follower -- happy to have you aboard, Eve! If anyone reading this hasn't yet read Eve's terrific blog, THE LADY EVE'S REEL LIFE, by all means check it out at

  10. I figured I'd better drop in and say a little something, as it has been a while since I've commented. I have never seen "Witness for the Prosecution" but it does appear on my neverending "to watch" list. I love Billy Wilder and someday I will see this film! You have a way with words and your blog posts always seem to flow along. Great writing and it was great reading. Don't be a stranger!

  11. Hey, Andrew, great to have you drop in for a visit here at TotED! I keep meaning to stop by "1001 Movies I Must (Apparently) See Before I Die" (which everyone reading this must read; you can find Andrew on Facebook and on Twitter at @adduvall1984). I've been swamped lately, and I apologize for taking so long to catch up with you! Thanks so much for your nice words about the WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION blog post! Yes, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch WftP as soon as possible. I won't be a stranger if you won't, so by all means, let's visit each other's blogs more often. Thanks again, Andrew, and Happy Trailers! :-)

  12. No hard feelings whatsoever on your absence. I know how it can get and I'm glad that I was at least able to drop in and give one of your posts a read. I appreciate your kind words and thanks for directing your readers my way.