Oldies but goldies: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Director: Billy Wilder, Main Cast: Tyrone PowerMarlene DietrichCharles LaughtonElsa Lanchester

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Based on an Agatha Christie’s story, this courtroom drama is wonderfully directed and co-written by Billy Wilder. Aging Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton), barrister of the Crown and champion of hopeless cases, has just returned home from the hospital, when a fellow lawyer brings him Leonard Vole (Power), a young man soon to be accused of murder. Along with Sir Wilfrid we learn more about Vole and Mrs. French, the rich widow who has been killed, from the man himself and his German wife Christine (Dietrich), his only alibi. Wilder uses flashbacks quite effectively to show how Leonard met the victim and what kind of relationship they had. The audience at this point will dismiss Vole as a harmless but charming opportunist, and regard Christine as the most intriguing character so far: controlled, aloof and worldly; she is the one who, after all, really convinces Sir Wilfrid to take her husband’s case. The action moves into the the courtroom and the viewer is rewarded with priceless banter between the prosecution and the defense, dripping dry British humor, and utterly enjoyable. As is Agatha Christie’s wont, we witness setbacks for the defense, some juicy twists and a final big reveal (which I will not spoil for first-time viewers). I must say that Laughton and Dietrich are the ones who make the movie, they bring their characters to life with all their lights and shadows and display an undeniable talent and attention to details. Special kudos go to Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfrid’s nurse, she brings a light touch and comic relief that well balances the grim tone of the tale. Wilder crafts the story so well, without lulls or dull moments, and turns this film in a remarkable work of art, that remains a pleasure to revisit even after several viewings. Enthralling —9/10

Buy it from Amazon:

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This post is part of Sleuthathon, a blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, so please have a look at reviews of other great films about mysteries, detectives and the likes featured there:

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20 Comments

Filed under Oldies but goldies, Seen at home

20 responses to “Oldies but goldies: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

  1. A movie that never wears out its welcome.

    My applause at your ability to sell the movie and not sell out the ending. When I first showed this movie to my daughter when she was in high school, she leaped from her chair and shouted “That was freaking awesome!”. For me, it was like seeing it again for the first time.

  2. Fun review! I actually read the original play first and remember cackling out loud at the final reveal. I pride myself on being able to unravel mysteries but I was not prepared for that one. Thanks for participating.

  3. This is one of the first classic movies I ever saw–and what a wonderful one. Dietrich is fabulous and Laughton brilliant. And the plot twists still get me after multiple viewings. What a perfect writing pair–Christie’s great ideas, and Wilder’s writing style. Thank you for reminding me of a old favorite! Leah

  4. This is a wonderful film, and I agree that Charles Laughton is fantastic in this and really makes the movie, as far as I’m concerned (although the mystery is great, too – another one of Dame Agatha’s fiendishly clever constructions). Have you seen the 1982 TV movie remake with Ralph Richardson in the Sir Wilfrid part? It’s a good watch as well, and also boasts a great cast: Deborah Kerr (as Sir Wilfred’s nurse, Miss Plimsoll), Diana Rigg as Christine Helm, Beau Bridges as Vole and Donald Pleasence as the prosecutor, among others.

  5. Certainly one of my favourite reveals and one that I (not unusually!) didn’t see coming. Dietrich is so much better in this than I thought she would be, her role was really strengthened by the excellent screenplay.
    Thanks for reminding me about one of my favourites!

  6. Oh boy! I love love LOVE this movie. The acting is SO GOOD! You could almost say this is a perfect movie…if such a thing exists.

  7. You are right, Laughton and Dietrich make the movie.

  8. Le

    This is a great, great, great movie. Too bad it doesn’t receiv reruns here anymore, or I would watch every time it is on TV! The end left me speechless. Well, nothing can go wrong with Billy Wilder and Agatha Christie together!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Le from Critica Retro

  9. Laughton had an amazing late stretch in his career. This and Advise and Consent are particularly good.

  10. I have a lot of time for Laughton (Rembrandt, Hobson’s Choice, Henry VIII etc) and he didn’t let me down in this. Unfortunately, even as a young viewer, I did get the ‘big twist’, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of some great performances.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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