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.

Drama Featured Film Mystery/Noir

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power was one of most dashing leading men in Hollywood history and became a massive box office draw beginning in the mid-1930s. However, after many swashbuckling Saturday matinees, musicals, and romantic dramas, he longed to do something more weighty. He used his star power to convince a skeptical Daryl Zanuck to produce a film based on a dark, disturbing, debut novel by a dark, disturbing guy named William Lindsay Gresham. The resulting film was a most atypical one both from the point of view of Power’s career and the film noir genre: 1947’s Nightmare Alley.

The plot is long and twisty, but Jules Furthman of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not fame knew as well as any screenwriter how to keep an audience from becoming lost. Stanton Carlisle (Power) works at a carnival, assisting a couple with their low rent mind-reading act. Zeena (Joan Blondell, whose performance stands out even in this strong cast) has become the brains of the outfit due to her husband Pete’s decline into alcoholism (A sympathetic Ian Keith). Once Zeena and Peter were the toast of high society, due to a sophisticated code they developed to create the illusion of extra-sensory perception. Stanton turns his magnetic charm towards getting Zeena to teach him the code and simultaneously seducing a young beauty named Molly who also works at the carnival (Coleen Gray). He gets what he wants from both women, and he and Molly flee to the big city. They revive Zeena and Pete’s old act with tremendous success. But soon an alluring and devious psychiatrist (a delicious part deliciously played by Helen Walker) tempts Stanton into an even bigger con, which leads him to places many a film noir protagonist knows far too well.

Tyrone Power and Helen Walker in Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley is a punchy exploration of how ambition and greed translate into cruelty and deceit. Although not generally known as a noir director, Edmund Goulding has firm grasp of the material, and deserves credit for the uniformly strong acting. He and Power had just collaborated on the excellent The Razor’s Edge and they continue to thrive together here, making Stanton appealing and vulnerable enough that we keep caring about him even as his morality corrodes. The film also offers an unusually large array of complex, strong, women characters, all of which are well-played.

Nightmare Alley is unlike most noirs of the period, for two reasons. First, Power doesn’t look the part of the noir protagonist: he’s too handsome, too smooth, and too poised. He looks out of place in the carny scenes, but at home in the swanky scenes where he wears a tuxedo in a plush hotel ballroom. And yet, it works, because this is perhaps the best performance of Power’s career, stretching his range unlike anything he’d been in before. The fall of his character is that much more devastating precisely because he starts out looking like he has success oozing out of every pore.

The other atypical aspect of the film is that it’s one of very few big budget noirs of the period (Leave Her To Heaven being a better known example) Noirs were usually cheaply made, and indeed some of their conventions (e.g., minimal lighting) emerged in part to hide their low budgets. In contrast, this is a gorgeous looking film shot by Lee Garmes and stuffed with authentic sets, varied locations, and perfect outfits for the characters.

Tyrone Power and Taylor Holmes in Nightmare Alley (1947)

The only thing that bothered me about the film is that the perfect, sock you in the gut final scene became the penultimate one when Zanuck saw the rushes. The film closes instead on a more hopeful (though still dark) scene that has less psychic weight. Studio-imposed, punch pulling, final scene are commercially understandable but artistically barren (I had the same complaint about 99 River Street), particularly here when “I was made for it” is an all time noir classic line that should have closed out the story. But that’s a small complaint to have about such an accomplished piece of cinema.

Nightmare Alley didn’t do good business at release because Zanuck didn’t believe in it and because it violated audience expectations for Power and for film noir. But in the years since, it has been deservedly rediscovered as a classic of the genre and a high point of the tragically short career of Tyrone Power.