Drama Mystery/Noir

Witness for the Prosecution

The Ace Black Blog: Movie Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Agatha Christie’s popular blend of mysterious murders, eccentric characters, droll humor, and surprise endings have translated smoothly into many entertaining movies, including some all time-classics. In that glittering club along with another of my recommendation (And Then There Were None) is Billy Wilder’s 1957 gem Witness for the Prosecution.

Plot: While recovering from a heart attack, the brilliant and caustic Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is presented a murder case that tempts him back to the Old Bailey, despite the risks to his health. A charming ne’er do well named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of murdering an older, well-heeled, widow named Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), who had fallen under his spell. Vole’s glamorous, enigmatic, German wife (Marlene Dietrich) at first seems willing and able to provide an alibi…but the audience shares Sir Wilfrid’s suspicion that the case will be nowhere near that simple.

Christie was comfortable with liberal adaptations of her work. Indeed, she herself changed the ending of her story Traitor’s Hands when turning into a play called Witness for the Prosecution. And she countenanced a number of further changes in the film version, as scripted by Wilder, Larry Marcus, and Harry Kurnitz. Their most brilliant innovations were enlarging the part of Sir Wilfred to give Laughton a showcase role and inventing outright the character of Miss Plimsoll, his long suffering nurse. Casting Laughton’s real-life wife, that shamelessly funny ham Elsa Lanchester, as Miss Plimsoll was another stroke of genius. The first quarter of the film could have stood on its feet just as a comedy, as Plimsoll mothers and badgers Sir Wilfrid to follow his health regime and he schemes and wheedles to obtain his treasured cigars and brandy.

Reviewing performances: Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1957 ...

But of course it’s not primarily a comedy, but a murder mystery and courtroom drama. It’s very strong on those terms, with articulate jousting in the courtroom and engrossing plot twists outside of it. The ending, which I will not ruin (and the post-credits ask audiences to abide by the same silence), is a bit contrived but still satisfying.

The smaller roles are also very well essayed, include Una O’Connor as the hilariously crotchety maid of the victim and Henry Daniell, whom I loved in multiple Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, as another lawyer. But even in this strong cast, Laughton towers over them all with one of signature performances of his stellar career. His Sir Wilfrid is a complete character: insufferable at times, dazzling at others, and always, at the core, honorable.

Tyrone Power was an intriguing choice as the accused. Entering middle age (and tragically, to die of a heart attack after this picture was released) , his handsomeness is still visible, but at a less godlike level that in the 1940s. He looks, appropriately, like a chancer who knows his looks will fade soon but are still impressive enough to spark fantasies in a lonely older woman. Marlene is as beguiling as ever, and it doesn’t really bother us that despite her penury, she wears a series of smashing outfits designed by Edith Head.


The movie is of course also another triumph for Billy Wilder, and one that at moments echoes some of his other movies. Leonard’s relationship with Mrs. French brings to mind Sunset Boulevard and a scene in post-war Germany with Dietrich and Power recalls A Foreign Affair. Resonant grace notes for fans of the legendary director.

Action/Adventure Comedy Mystery/Noir

And Then There Were None

Agatha’s Christie’s tale of 10 strangers on a remote island who are mysteriously killed off one by one has been adapted countless times on stage, on television and on the big screen. But it will be hard to ever top the 1945 version that was the highlight of the otherwise forgettable English-language phase of French film director Rene Clair’s career: And Then There Were None.

The story opens with a wonderful extended non-verbal sequence in which a group of disparate people eye each other curiously on a rowboat that is making its way to a lonely island. They soon discover that they have been invited for a weekend trip from which they are not expected to return. The owner of the mansion in which they are staying had pledged to kill them all as vengeance for their past misdeeds. Who is the killer, and is he — or she — actually one of the guests?

Christie’s story is contrived beyond belief but is so much fun twist by twist that audiences have never cared. The mordant wit is a particular plus throughout, and keeps the audience smiling even as the bodies pile up. The film version uses the more upbeat ending from the stage version rather than the tenebrous wrap up from the book, which was probably a good decision given the wartime audience.

Clair turns in near-Hitchcock level direction in the comedy-romance-suspense vein, and the cast is roses. Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston sparkle as the leads, Judith Anderson is brilliant as always as one of the guest/victim/suspects, C. Aubrey Smith offers an agreeably demented take on his Commander McBragg routine, and Roland Young (who was hilarious in my friend Jean O’Reilly’s recommendation of Ruggles of Red Gap) is a hoot as a private detective whose brain works at half speed.

Last but not least among its virtues, this film appeals to a broad age range of audience. I know myself because I watched it twice with a gap of 30 years in between and loved it both times.

And Then There Were None is in the public domain so I embed it here for your viewing pleasure.