Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Clever and sly, Witness for the Prosecution has the appearance of being a modest little film – which in many ways it is, I suppose – that manages to sneak up on you and reveal itself as an absorbing drama.

Taken from the stage play/short story by Agatha Christie, and directed by Billy Wilder, it’s a combination of murder mystery and courtroom drama that features a number of bang on the money performances.

I suspect one reason it works so well is because it combines murder mystery with courtroom drama.

They work well together naturally. The former provides plot and structure; the latter allows for character and drama.

There are three major roles (barrister, accused, wife of the accused) and a major supporting role (a nurse).

John Williams and Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution.

Charles Laughton is Sir Wilfrid, who is defending Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), on trial for murder. Sir Wilfrid is a curmudgeonly barrister of high repute just recently released from the hospital. He has a personal nurse, Miss Plimsoll (played by Elsa Lanchester), a talkative, fussy woman with whom he battles constantly as she tries to keep him from indulging in his unhealthy pleasures, like cigars.

Leonard Vole, the accused, is a straight-forward man who finds himself on trial for murder. Some of his wide-eyed reactions to the unfolding of events seem over-the-top as Power portrays him. We get the impression Vole is honest but simple, or at least naive.

Then there is Vole’s wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), the witness referred to in the title and a woman of whom we don’t know what to think other than to distrust her.

Warning: possible spoiler

Charles Laughton, John Williams and Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution.

After seeing the movie and thinking about it a bit I understood its essential theme. Simply put it is this: don’t be fooled by first impressions. There isn’t a single major character who isn’t different from what they seemed initially, to greater and lesser degrees, at the end of the movie.

In some cases, it is simply a greater depth of character that we were unaware of because they fit so neatly into a type. In other cases, the difference is more striking.

In a comment on a post of mine a few years ago, the Self-Styled Siren mentioned that, “Simon Callow said Laughton was conveying decency, a surprisingly uncommon thing on screen.” This is true, I think, but it isn’t until the very end that we see how deeply that sense of decency runs.

Similarly, Elsa Lanchester’s Miss Plimsoll shows us she isn’t quite the officious, overly chatty nurse we’ve been led to believe. This, in part, is due to her responding to that decency she’s seen in Sir Wilfrid.

Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution.

Nothing we’ve assumed about the characters at the beginning is quite what the reality is at the end and this is the heart of the movie.

The striking thing about Witness for the Prosecution is that it works so well. This kind of movie, a whodunit murder mystery, relies on a gimmick to some degree – a final, surprising twist. I find they rarely work well. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off effectively but, when they do work, they are magnificent.

This is one movie where it works and works extraordinarily well thanks to a felicitous combination of script, performance and direction.

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