Saturday, April 12, 2014

Witness for the Prosecution: Jury of the Peerless!

This revised version of Witness for the Prosecution is hosted by the Diamond & Gold Blogathon, hosted by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World.  Enjoy!

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!
Sir Wilfrid Robarts comes home, recovering from his "teeny-weeny heart attack" as nurse Miss Plimsoll reveals he wasn't released, he was expelled -- conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient!
(Sir Wilfrid to Miss Plimsoll: "Put these in water, blabbermouth")
Talk about powerhouse stars!  The versatile Charles Laughton (his many great roles include his Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII; Hobson’s Choice; The Big Clock) 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 we in the audience nervously wonder 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 chipper yet 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; sorry, guys!)  The comic sparring chemistry between Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll, and the playful warmth and understanding that grows between them by movie’s end, 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!) with Sir Wilfrid being the eager crime-stopper and Miss Plimsoll making a show of tut-tutting until she finally goes along with Wilfrid the Fox’s schemes with a smile!

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: ), 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!
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 my husband 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).

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"!


  1. Interesting tidbit about how Hitchcock didn't feel confident doing courtroom dramas. I would never have thought it beyond him.

    Laughton is magnificent in this, but every time I see him do that monocle trick, I think well, it's awfully convenient that he knows exactly where and how to stand... but then again, he has done it before!

    1. Rich, Vinnie and I are delighted you enjoyed our WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, and BRAVO! to you and Caftan Woman for your awesome Diamond & Gold Blogathon!

      I think Alfred Hitchcock probably wasn't into courtroom dramas because sometimes they can be very talky and static -- though we certainly think Billy Wilder, one of our favorite writers/directors sure did a great job of it! Must be that Billy Wilder touch! :-)

  2. Oh no . . . Dorian and Vinnie are expounding on WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. My hand. Can't control it. Can't . . . control . . . it!!!!!!! Aieeeee . . .

    (Quick! Where's Miss Plimsoll with my pills?)

    People talk about Charles Laughton and the conversation usually turns to films such as RUGGLES OF RED GAP, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, HOBSON'S CHOICE, THE CANTERVILLE GHOST and others. With all due respect to such people my idea of the quintessential Laughton performance can be found in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Here Mr. Charles provides the golden standard for curmudgeons everywhere . . . snarling and barking and doing it in such a manner as to make the audience want to reach out and pet him (even at the risk of losing a finger or two). And then throwing Elsa Lanchester into the mix as the doughty Miss Plimsoll. No one who watches this can deny Billy Wilder's qualification as a genius (and it's a pity we couldn't have had a series of Sir Wilfrid/Miss Plimsoll films . . . a sort of British answer to the "Thin Man" films. Laughton and Lanchester were always fun to watch together, making me wish I could've been a next door neighbor to them). I kept smiling on how everyone was so concerned about the health of Laughton's character. Especially the ever-present Miss Plimsoll. But by the end of the film she had come to realize the truth: that the strain of courtroom gymnastics was meat and potatoes to a man such as Sir Wilfrid, and the best thing she could do was to ride shotgun (I clearly concur with Vinnie that an eventual Sir Wilfrid/Miss Plimsoll pairing was in the cards. Dash it all: a man can only put up with so much).

    Being one of the few people who prefers Marlene Dietrich in her later roles (e.g. JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, TOUCH OF EVIL, etc.), it's also a joy to see her nibble at the scenery just a tad (Duckie!) as she spins a web of deception (ah, but who was the spider, and who was the fly?). One can almost overlook a star of Tyrone Power's quality in the face of such a flawlessly performing cast, but fortunately there's no ego-tripping or grandstanding here, and Power's resume was the stronger for it.

    A better time with a movie can seldom be had.

    1. Michael, my friend, we always look forward to your comments here at Team B. HQ, and you and we of Team Bartilucci HQ wholeheartedly agree about WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and your witty, enthusiastic praise about our post, especially your kudos for the ever-awesome Charles & Elsa! You're quite right about how these wonderful characters evolve from sparring to understanding. Vin and I agree with you too about Miss Plimsoll riding shotgun (and isn't Elsa a delight coming down from the lift with Sir Wilfrid's injection with the cigar?)! Power and Dietrich have charisma to burn, and hey, the rest of the supporting cast aren't small potatoes, either. I tell you, Michael, we really must get that time machine we keep kidding about! :-) Thanks for joining us for the WITNESS fun! :-D

  3. After the shocks and twists it is the humour in the film that stays in your heart. "Wilfrid the Fox" indeed!

    My daughter was a teenager when I first made her watch "Witness for the Prosecution". It was like getting a chance to see it for the first time all over again. She leaped out of her chair, punched the air and shouted "That was freaking awesome!". I believe that must have been exactly what Billy Wilder had in mind.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Who needs or wants some callow young couple when you can have Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll?

    1. Caftan Woman, hearing your daughter's enthusiastic rave for WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION had me wanting to cheer and punch the air with delight, too! Surely I've said this to you before, but I'll say it again: you're truly raising your kids right! Keep it up, my friend!

      Kudos as well to you and Rich at Wide Screen World for cooking up this brilliant Diamond & Gold Blogathon! You both get accolades from all of us here at Team HQ! Same time next year? :-D

    2. Same time next year? That's a thought.

  4. Great post, Dorian! I love this film. Of course, the first time I saw it, I was absolutely floored by the story - but on second viewing I was amazed by the wonderful performances. It is a rich and layered film that can be enjoyed over and over.

  5. Fun post, Dorian, and a great choice for the blogathon. You've reminded me that it's been too long since I saw this film.

    1. Jacqueline, thanks for your kind praise for our WITNESS... post! (Kudos to my husband Vinnie for his swell GIFs,' too! :-) It's true, even when you've already seen this stunning movie, it still feels as fresh and mesmerizing as the first time we saw it, and it doesn't hurt that the powerhouse cast is fabulous company. I hope you'll get a chance to watch it again soon for the fun of it, and warmest wishes to you and yours!

  6. Marsha, I'm tickled that you enjoyed our WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION post; not that I'm surprised, since you have great taste in movies! :-D Even though I know every line of it by heart, I still enjoy it so much that it always feels fresh and new! Thanks a million for your enthusiastric comments, pal!

  7. As much as I like your review, the highlights were th captions for the images. Too funny!
    This movie just made me speechless. Well, I couldn't expect less from an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel! Now, every time I see it is scheduled on TV, I smile in a quirk way, the way something who knows an important secret smiles.
    Charles Laughton is always so good. And what about Una O'Connor, a scream queen? There is a 1930s horror movies that she is so hysterical that I want to punch her.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Le, we're always glad to have you joining the fun here at Tales of the Easily Distracted, especially when there's a Blogathon, like now! :-) I'm delighted that you love everyone in this great cast, including Una O'Connor as well as the rest of the wonderful cast; she steals the show as Janet McKenzie (loved her in THE INVISIBLE MAN, among others)! I'll be sending your post of INHERIT THE WIND very soon indeed. Thanks for joining in the Diamonds & Gold Blogathon! :-D Kisses to you, too!

  8. I think this is one of my favourite Marlene Dietrich roles. Perhaps not the takeaway from this blogathon, but still...
    Thanks for such a wonderful review. Charles Laughton is just wonderful, a fact that I missed on the first viewing as I was so gripped by the plot. Thanks for reminding me why I loved this film so much!

    1. Glad you joined the WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION Blogathon fun with us, Girls Do Film (by the way, we've been meaning to tell you all that we love your moniker!). WITNESS... always seems to grab us no matter how many times we watch it; after all, we think Marlene Dietrich is chock full of awesome, too, and Charles and Elsa always steal the show here! :-D Thanks for your kind words, and feel free to drop by and say hello anytime at Team Bartilucci HQ!

  9. I adore Charles and Elsa's chemistry. Either separately or together both are wonderful to watch. I've always been a fan of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. It has so much to take away from it and as usual, you've made it a fun house ride chock full of info and hilarious commentary. Vinnie's GIFs are particular swell here too... Just enjoy the heck out of your work doll- Cheers Your Pal Joey

    1. Joey, we're delighted you've dropped by for the WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION fun and frolic on this Monday-after-Easter! You had me beaming with your kind kudos, especially "'ve made it a fun house ride chock full of info and hilarious commentary. Vinnie's GIFs are particular swell here too..." (Vin kindly sends his thanks!). I've said it before, but I'm always happy to say it again: you're truly a sugar bowl with two handles, and a truly dear Pal Joey indeed, Peaches! Thanks a million, and warmest wishes to you and Wendy and all you care about, from your friends and fans from Team Bartilucci HQ! :-D

  10. Dor, this is one of my all-time faves, and your review is one of the best I've ever read about this great film. I agree with everything you said, and I love the idea of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton doing a series of detective films together. That is such a great idea!

    I'm sorry it's taken me so long to read this fab post. It's been crazy around here and I'm just now catching up on all my reading. :)

    1. Ruth, my friend, no apologies are required -- believe me, we're all in the same Great Villain Blogathon boat, so to speak, not that we're complaining! So you see, I'm in Tales of the Easily Distracted as well! :-)

      Thanks a million for your enthusiastic praise of our WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION; you're the cat's tuxedo (another high praise for you, pal)! We need to figure out how to turn Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll into a spin-off, but until then, we'll just have to enjoy our blogging for the fun of it -- and for me and the Blogathon, I'm working on PSYCHO for the Villain Blogathon! I'm looking forward to reading and enjoying yours and our fellow blogger Villain posts! :-D