Witness for the Prosecution (1957)


Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder
Harry Kurnitz

Director of Photography:
Russell Harlan

Running time: 116 minutes

It’s all about the ending. Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, based on the Agatha Christie play with the same title, was a landmark film in the sense that it was one of the first films whose main attraction was a final plot twist. Before The Sixth Sense, before House of Games and even before Psycho, there was Witness for the Prosecution, and, just like Hitchcock, who launched a marketing campaign to ensure people don’t give away the ending (nor the beginning), Wilder’s film ends with a voice-over asking the audience to please keep silent about the film’s last-minute coup de théâtre.

Unfortunately, this is by far the film’s most interesting aspect, and this is what saves it from mediocrity. Charles Laughton delivers a wonderful performance as the stubborn barrister who is convinced of his client’s innocence, despite the lack of tangible proof and the decision of the defendant’s wife (or, ex-wife) to be the titular witness for the prosecution, and he knows how to undermine proceedings when they do not seem to be progressing in his favour. But the screenplay, co-written by Wilder, does not possess the same verve that one generally associates with his work, and the dialogue in particular is merely functional where it should have delivered more punch.

Set in London in 1952, the film was shot exclusively in a studio and in fact, nearly the entire second half of the film takes place in the courtroom (the Old Bailey). From the title one can already surmise that this will be a courtroom drama, and of course one has the expectation of discovering who the “witness for the prosecution” will be. It is indeed a courtroom drama, but Laughton, starring as Sir Wilfred Robarts, plays it as comedy, shifting his weight around to make an entrance, keeping brandy in a flask that ought to be for his warm cocoa, and trading jabs with his nurse, the high-strung Miss Plimsoll.

Shortly after his release from the hospital, Sir Wilfred is paid a visit by a man named Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering the elderly, very wealthy Miss Emily French (whom I considered a bit of an excitable blabbermouth). Sir Wilfred is intrigued by the case, especially when Vole’s German wife, Christine (a wonderful job by Marlene Dietrich), seems not at all convinced about her own husband’s innocence. Sir Wilfred decides not to use her as a witness, but before long she is recruited by the prosecution, who alleges that Mrs Vole was already married when she first met Leonard and therefore is allowed to testify against her own husband.

Sir Wilfred easily discredits Mrs Vole, but he is not entirely happy with the way the case has proceeded, and frankly, neither was I. Compared with today’s courtroom dramas, or even Judgment at Nuremberg, released in 1961, this film is incredibly simplistic, and it would seem that the case is decided within two days. But then there is a deus ex machina that appears in the form of a drunk in a bar at Euston Station, and before we know it, things take a pleasant and wholly surprising turn.

It would seem that the case is open and shut, but Sir Wilfred still waits for the banana peel, and when we get this information, in the film’s final minutes, it turns the whole case upside down, with remarkable adroitness. The film is all about the ending, and it is a pity we have to wait two relatively tepid hours for the finale, but when it does come, it strikes a thunderous blow to our preconceived notions.

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