So I finally saw Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play Witness For the Prosecution and it was a thoroughly satisfying experience. It’s always great to experience old cinema and to see how different genres were treated in those days. After seeing this movie I was on the usual high that occurs after seeing any good film. At first I was tempted to include Witness For the Prosecution in my 100 Favourite Films, but I was still on that high. And I had to come down – it wasn’t until later that I realised that it is not as great a movie as it seems. It still is a really good movie – deserving each of its six Oscar nominations, and then some. But there is just that fractional margin that prevents it from being a masterpiece. And it is really is a small margin.
When an aging barrister, Wilfrid Robarts[Charles Laughton] suffers a heart attack his intrusive Nurse Miss Plimsoll [Elsa Lancaster] wants to prevent him from taking any cases that will be stressful and detrimental to his health. Despite being crotchety Rovarts realises that her advice is good, but when a most puzzling case falls into his lap he has no choice but to defend the unlikely suspect. The suspect is Leonard Vole [Tyrone Power], an out of work and would be inventor, who has recently befriended an older widow, who just so happens to be well off. When Mrs. French dies one night, evidently after a burglary, Leonard’s wife is certain that he will need a lawyer. This is how he ends up at Jones’ office. A congenial man, Leonard purports his innocence, not certain that he really is a valid suspect. But he is a valid suspect as an insurmountable amount of circumstantial evidence against him begins to row.
The beauty of this film lies in the denouement of events.
Continue reading if you don’t mind spoilers...
Robarts finds that Christine, despite presenting a wonderful alibi for Vole, is much too composed for his taste. She does not seem to have her husband’s best interest at heart. Surely this woman must have some agenda. And so she does. When the Prosecution calls their final witness, to everyone’s surprise that witness is none other than Christine Vole; or Christine Helm as she is now called. Apparently she and Leonard’s marriage was illegal owing to the continuance of a previous marriage. Christine’s testimony is the symbolic nail in the coffin that the prosecution has been fishing for. And Leonard’s goose is all but cooked. However, since this is an Agatha Christie play, Jones gets a mysteriously call from a Cockney woman who has some unflattering letters written by Christine to a certain Max. Seeing that you’ve already seen the film, you know who this unnamed Cockney woman is. This is a brilliant part of the film... although it could almost have not worked. The makeup used to transform Dietrich is not as extensive as one would think and there is an obvious resemblance. A resemblance I picked up on, but then disregarded. I mean, no one looks like Marlene but Marlene. But her acting in that pivotal scene was so good…you really don’t even begin to assume. You’re so caught up in the suspense of the film, that never for a moment do you suspect...
Of course these damning letters completely discredit Christine’s testimony and after a great scene pitting Dietrich against Laughton Leonard Vole is found not guilty. This is where the film more or less veers off. And it’s not so much the film’s fault as it is the source material. The part I’m referring to is Christine’s confession to Robarts. It spoils the film a bit for me. I’m no criminal, but having done my share of terrible acts NEVER have I felt a sudden desire to tell it all. Maybe I’m just not boastful but having Christine confess to Jones is a ridiculous notion. Of course it’s important for us to find out the punch line, and how else would we find out the punch line you ask? Why not have Christine and Leonard leave separately. And after the crowd dissipates we cut back to the Vole home. Leonard comes in and he and Christine embrace. The viewer is confused and as the shot widens we see the very costume of the Cockney woman. That would have been very much more interesting, or something along those lines. This is not a play, everything need not be resolved by speech; but alas that could not have happened because the story is not done there.
Yes, Christine has perjured herself but its Leonard who has been playing us all. He is guilty, and what’s more he has another woman. This just decimates the film into a tawdry affair for me. Yes, every good film has a twist, and we don’t really see it coming...but was it really necessary. After sinking to this though the film has nowhere to go but up and when Christine performs her execution it’s a beautiful moment and almost made me disregard what happens earlier. But I can’t. Still the actual ending is wonderful. As Christine is carted off and Ms. Plimsoll tells Mayhew so sagely. We’re not going yet. The look on Ms. Lancaster’s face makes me fine with her Oscar nomination. She knows way more than she’s letting on, and that final line. You’ve forgotten your brandy. It’s so telling and adds a bit of humour in light of sad events.
I realise that my few reservations about the film have more to do with the source material and I can honestly say that the only way it could have been improved was by diverting from the source material, which probably would not have stood as well with audiences. But Christie’s original ending would have worked much better on film. Don’t let my somewhat negative stance fool you though. This is a wonderful film. It’s not as dismal as Sunset Boulevard but its every bit as taut a drama, maybe more so.
And Marlene Dietrich? – did she deserve an Oscar nomination? My answer is a resounding YES. But in what category? That’s the issue. It’s not a true lead performance but I suppose voters would be wary of putting in supporting; which is where I think it belongs. Because at the end of the day this story is about Robarts, it’s not about the Voles. And it’s a great film. See it. It’s worth it. See it for Laughton, see it for Wilder, but most of all see it for Dietrich.