Screen legends Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton star in this "brilliantly made courtroom drama" (Film Daily) that left audiences reeling from its surprise twists and shocking climax. Directed by Billy Wilder, scripted by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, and based on Agatha Christie's hit London play, this splendid, one-of-a-kind classic "crackles with emotional electricity" (The New York Times) and continues to keep movie lovers riveted until the final, mesmerizing frame. When a wealthy widow is found murdered, her married suitor, Leonard Vole (Power), is accused of the crime. Vole's only hope for acquittal is the testimony of his wife (Dietrich)... but his airtight alibi shatters when she reveals some shocking secrets of her own! Nominated for 6 Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton) and Supporting Actress (Elsa Lanchester).
With more than four billion volumes in circulation, Agatha Christie has been officially anointed the best-selling novelist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. That's quite an achievement for someone never considered to be a great writer. Yet while the grande dame of British mysteries may lack literary panache, she certainly knows how to spin a mesmerizing yarn, crafting intricate, airtight plots filled with ingenious twists that make it impossible to surmise whodunit until the final page. Her universally accessible nuts-and-bolts style also encompasses theatrical stage plays ('The Mousetrap' has been running continuously in London since 1952!), and has spawned several stellar film versions of her work - 'And Then There Were None' and 'Murder on the Orient Express' chief among them. 'Witness for the Prosecution,' adapted from a 1955 stage hit, also ranks right up there with Christie's best, thanks to a crackerjack story that keeps us on the edge of our seat until the shocking and unforgettable denouement.
A thrilling narrative, however, can only take a movie so far. A stylist is often required to punch dialogue, inject subtle nuances into the material, and animate robotic characters. And few stylists can eclipse the immensely talented, inimitable Billy Wilder, who - with his collaborator Harry Kurnitz - makes Christie's dry words sing. Couple that with his trademark rapier wit, a touch of whimsy, and colorful performances by a first-rate cast led by Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester, and the director of such diverse yet masterful fare as 'Double Indemnity,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' and 'Some Like It Hot' thus transforms 'Witness for the Prosecution' into one of the most riveting and entertaining courtroom dramas in Hollywood history.
Spoiling 'Witness for the Prosecution' is tantamount to treason, so if you haven't yet seen this immensely satisfying motion picture, rest assured I won't give too much away. Yet keeping mum makes a detailed review and honest evaluation of the movie difficult. The one area where the film slightly stumbles concerns a pivotal plot development that I refuse to divulge, so just realize that although I highly revere this classic mystery, I'm well aware it's not perfect. Any minor faults, however, can't diminish my enthusiasm for 'Witness for the Prosecution,' which remains just as engrossing, clever, and thrilling on repeat viewings as it is the first time through.
Nowadays, twist endings are de rigueur, and jaded audiences can often predict them a mile away, but back in 1957 such hairpin plot turns were far more rare, often inspiring audible gasps in movie theaters, as well as beseechments from exhibitors not to reveal the climax to others. (The trailer for 'Witness' proudly states - and warns - no one will be admitted to the auditorium during the film's final 10 minutes to preserve and honor its shock value.) Which is not to imply astute viewers won't be able to see through the movie's ruse. But even if you recognize the deception, connecting all the dots is tough to do, until Christie, Wilder, and the actors lay it all out for us...and then deliciously surprise us once more.
Sir Wilfrid (Laughton) is one of London's most esteemed and brilliant barristers, yet away from the courtroom he's a cantankerous curmudgeon who punctuates his dour attitude with withering sarcasm and disdain for regimentation and personal restraint. When we first meet him, he's returning home from the hospital in a weakened state after suffering a heart attack, accompanied by an overly attentive flibbertigibbet of a personal nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester). (The character was invented by Wilder and did not appear in the original Christie play.) Sir Wilfrid is under strict directives to rest and avoid stress, but much to the chagrin of the overprotective and ordered Miss Plimsoll, he can't resist the allure of a juicy murder case. And much to her horror, he forges ahead full throttle.
That case concerns Leonard Vole (Power), a charming, handsome war veteran, part-time inventor, and all-around ne'er-do-well, who's accused of bumping off a rich widow (Norma Varden) after it's revealed she bequeathed him a large sum of money. He ardently professes his innocence - and Sir Wilfrid believes him - but a mountain of circumstantial evidence points to his guilt. His only alibi is his emotionless wife Christine (Dietrich), a German expatriate who Leonard rescued during the waning days of World War II. So imagine everyone's surprise when Christine turns up as a surprise witness for the prosecution and provides damning evidence against Leonard, who can't believe his devoted wife has turned against him. Such a brazen betrayal shocks the courtroom, but it's only the opening salvo in what quickly becomes a highly dramatic and unpredictable case.
Wilder expands the claustrophobic drama nicely, devising a flashback that develops the romance between Leonard and Christine - and allows the 55-year-old Dietrich the opportunity to expose her still sexy gams and sing a rousing bar tune - as well as the relationship between Leonard and the trusting dowager who takes a shine to him. The focus, however, is the courtroom, and Wilder makes sure the intermittent fireworks that pepper the incendiary plot achieve their maximum impact. His direction here may be more static than usual (although it did garner him his sixth Oscar nomination), but it remains true to the core elements of the story.
And thanks to a first-rate adaptation and fine performances, Wilder tells that story in a masterful manner. Laughton doesn't just steal the show, he instantly hijacks it, voraciously chewing the scenery with abandon and milking every quip, put-down, grandiose pronouncement, and throwaway line. It's a delectably hammy turn that's impossible to resist, despite its obvious and calculated over-the-top nature, and it earned the actor a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. (He lost to Alec Guinness in 'Bridge on the River Kwai.') Lanchester, who was Laughton's off-screen wife, received a Best Supporting Actress nod for her delightfully flighty portrayal, and their comfortable chemistry results in plenty of good-natured bickering.
Power's astute, polished, and impassioned performance helped revive his flagging career, but sadly, 'Witness for the Prosecution' would prove to be his final film. The swashbuckling matinee idol would die of a heart attack several months after shooting concluded at the tender age of 44 while working on the sword-and-sandal epic 'Solomon and Sheba.' Dietrich asserts herself well, too, in arguably her most challenging screen role, acting with an emotional vigor she rarely displayed over the course of her long career. Always cool and aloof, Dietrich wisely employs those qualities early in the movie, casting an air of mystery over her pivotal character that makes it difficult to discern her motives or define her actions. She, too, hoped to nab an Oscar nomination for her work, but was unfortunately overlooked - most likely due to the mispronunciation of a single syllable. (I'd love to elaborate, but doing so would spoil a major plot point.)
In all, 'Witness for the Prosecution' received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but came home empty handed on Oscar night. But the film's failure to be recognized doesn't diminish in the slightest the aura that surrounds this fantastically entertaining movie. Courtroom dramas are a dime a dozen, but the good ones make an indelible impression, and 'Witness for the Prosecution' continues to impress new generations of viewers no matter how old it gets. If you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. And even if you have, Wilder's film is just as enjoyable the second, third, and fourth times around.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Witness for the Prosecution' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
United Artists motion pictures don't always age as well as those produced by the major studios, which have vast vaults at their disposal, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I popped 'Witness for the Prosecution' into my Blu-ray player. My expectations were guarded, to say the least, but I'm happy to report this classic courtroom drama looks pretty spiffy in high definition - much fresher and more lively than I anticipated, and sporting only minimal wear-and-tear. The source material is largely clean, exhibiting just a few nicks and marks, while clarity and contrast are fairly consistent, and a natural grain structure maintains the look and feel of celluloid. A varied gray scale captures plenty of detail in Sir Wilfrid's flat and in the courtroom, with solid levels at each end of the spectrum. Blacks are rich and deep (Christine's dress in the flashback sequence is especially striking), whites are stable and well defined, and patterns, such as the tweed weave of Leonard's jacket, nicely resist shimmering. Shadow delineation is quite good, background elements show up well, and close-ups, while not razor sharp, are crisp and vibrant. No noise or pixelation is present, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Fans of the film will be quite pleased with the results of this above-average transfer, which breathes new life into this exceptional film.
No doubt about it, 'Witness for the Prosecution' is a talky film, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track makes sure we don't miss a quip, outburst, or droll witticism. The clean, clear sound is devoid of any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, and though dynamic range is rather limited, no distortion creeps into the mix, even during heated courtroom exchanges. Accents, like the judge's gavel, are crisp and distinct, and subtleties, such as the gentle hum of the stair lift in Sir Wilfrid's home, are easily discernible. The forgettable music score is sparingly employed, but sounds fine, and Dietrich's rousing solo number, 'I May Never Go Home Anymore,' exudes a fair amount of oomph. This is a pretty basic track, but it gets the job done and doesn't call attention to itself, which suits this plot-driven film to a T.
Just a couple of minor supplements enhance the disc.
Interview with Billy Wilder (SD, 7 minutes) - In this brief interview, most likely culled from a more comprehensive documentary, the legenday director amazes with his linguistic skills (he speaks German, French, and English during the course of the conversation) as he discusses a few changes between the stage version of 'Witness for the Prosecution' and the film adaptation, praises Agatha Christie's plot structure (but criticizes her writing as "flat"), and terms Dietrich's face "one of the greatest in the history of film." Wilder is a magnetic presence, and it's a shame more of this interview isn't included on this disc.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - A jovial Charles Laughton addresses the audience during the latter portion of this preview, which includes a couple of alternate takes, and warns no one will be admitted during the film's final 10 minutes. It also begs viewers not to spoil the twist ending for others.
One of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time, Billy Wilder's scintillating adaptation of Agatha Christie's 'Witness for the Prosecution' is just as entertaining today as it surely was upon its initial release more than a half century ago. This terrific mystery - unlike most genre entries - holds up well on subsequent viewings, thanks to its pricelessly witty dialogue, delicious twists and turns, and first-class performances by a trio of Hollywood legends. Even if you know the story, the film remains engrossing and fun, and that's all due to the inimitable Wilder touch. Kino's Blu-ray presentation may be short on supplements, but the disc scores high marks in the video and audio departments, making it a slam-dunk purchase for fans. For everyone else, this flick comes highly recommended.