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.
|Miss Plimsoll, won't you join me |
in a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"?
|Not sure you can trust your client? |
Sir Wilfrid's Monocole Test Never fails!
Back to the plot: Even though Sir Wilfrid’s friends and colleagues keep telling him to relax and take it easy after his heart attack, he can’t resist taking the case of a new client who needs help, but quick! Sir Wilfrid’s new client is Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power of The Razor’s Edge; The Black Swan; Nightmare Alley). Look up “Vole” in the dictionary, and you’ll see how clever his name is.) Leonard is an unemployed but affable inventor, the kind of fella you can’t help liking, especially when a lonely widow like Mrs. French needs a friend, especially if he’s younger than Mrs. French and they’ve both got time on their hands—a real lady-killer, perhaps? Leonard has been accused of murdering Emily Jane French, the kind of older woman who often has too much time on her hands, or as the French say, “Women of a certain age.” Was Mrs. French killed by a burglar, as Leonard insists? Or was it, as Mr. Meyers (Torin Thatcher from The Fallen Idol; Major Barbara) sardonically suggests the culprits are all random burglars and/or burglaresses. The luckless Mrs. French is played by one of Team Bartilucci's favorite character actresses, Norma Varden (from The Glass Key; Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). Varden and Power work together beautifully in their scenes, portraying Mrs. French’s sweet-natured longing as funny and poignant at the same time.
|Christine Vole: Hostile Hottie Witness!|
|Busted! Sir Wilfrid's nurse,, Miss Plimsoll |
already knows where the bodies, er, cigars, are hidden!
Speaking of beautiful, Marlene Dietrich is absolutely mesmerizing in both looks and acting talent as Leonard’s 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 works beautifully, especially in Christine and Leonard’s sexy meet-cute/fall-in-love/dig-those-legs scenes, in and out of flashbacks. 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 (The Great Dictator), John Williams (Dial M for Murder), Ian Wolfe (Rebel Without A Cause; Red , and Torin Thatcher provide able support, too, with original Broadway cast member Una O'Connor (The Invisible Man; Bride of Frankenstein) 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 O’Connor’s final film before her death in 1959, but what a memorable swansong it was. In our household, "Is that really desirable?" has become a catchphrase (as well as the title of one of Team Bartilucci’s blogs: http://itrd.blogspot.com ), along with many other gems from the mouths of star Laughton and the rest of the sterling cast! :-)
|Another satisfied customer from Leonard Vole, Inventor!|
|What kind of person was the late Mrs. Emily Jane French?|
What breed? A lady with a perky hat on, thanks to her new best buddy Leonard Vole!
Just make sure she doesn't go to dinner parties with Alfred Hitchcock!
|No disrespect to Mrs. French, but Christine Vole rocks that hat way better!|
I promised Vinnie I’d carry on the tradition of not revealing the surprise ending of WftP (I won’t blab!) Here’s the filmmakers word of warning:
“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.”
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!
|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"!