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Witness for the Prosecution
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: Billy Wilder:
Cast: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester

This ageless movie is a masterwork directed by the great Billy Wilder, and is based on a novel by Agatha Christie. A story of chicanery, deceit, deception, double cross and even triple cross to be sure.

Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole is a middle class drifter accused of murder. He has no real job and spends his time inventing gadgets to make his millions. During the war, he was in the British Army. In Germany, in the aftermath of the war, when a cup of coffee would get you a kiss and a pack of cigarettes would get you laid, he meets and marries Christine Helm (Marlene Dietrich), a woman of easy virtue and brings her home to England.

After a few years of going from job to job, he meets a wealthy widow Emily French (Norma Varden) who takes a fancy to him. He cultivates her love and soon is a regular visitor to her upscale flat. Then one night, Emily French is brutally murdered and the police accuse Tyrone Power of the murder. In desperation, his solicitor contacts the prominent barrister (attorney) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) and asks him to represent Leonard at the murder trial (In England, unlike the United States, there is dual system of legal help. If you are accused of a crime or are suing someone, you first hire a solicitor who is actually a lawyer. Then the solicitor will recommend a barrister to present your case. Only barristers are allowed in the courts. Barristers are also lawyers, but they have been admitted to practice in front of a judge. It is quaint but it helps to understand the plot.)

Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton), has just been released from the hospital after a serious heart attack and is accompanied by an over bearing nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) who is determined to keep him away from too much stress. Nevertheless, Sir Wilfrid takes pity on Leonard and against the advice of his nurse and co-workers decided to take on the challenge of a murder trial. Along the way, Sir Wilfrid discovers that Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich) is not what she pretends to be. She is not the grateful wife that was rescued from prostitution. Now that she is a British citizen, she is hoping to send her husband to the gallows.

What follows is a game of brinkmanship, legal skullduggery and verbal dueling between the lead prosecutor, Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher), and Sir Wilfrid during the trial. Yet it is not all that it seems. There is treachery and betrayal and Sir Wilfrid finds himself a pawn in a game of triple cross. It is too pat, easy and symmetrical as he says.

The ending has a major twist, which in the tradition of Agatha Christie writings, cannot be easily guessed by the viewer or reader.

Bill Wilder's initial choice to play Leonard Vole was William Holden who was not available. He eventually settled on Tyrone Power for the role and that was a miraculous decision. Tyron Power at 43 looked much older. He was already dying slowly and nobody knew it. He was not the same handsome man of only a few years earlier. You can actually notice his blackened fingers during some of scenes to realize that he was not a well man. He played the part of the innocent and yet simpleton man accused of murder to perfection. I cannot add much about Charles Laughton, who like Laurence Olivier, was an actor's actor. His thunderous presence overshadows others throughout the movie. Sir Wilfrid has had a major heart attack and he knows he does not have much time to live and yet devotes his time to his profession. In real life, Charles Laughton lived for another six years. This movie has many lines that have been borrowed, shamelessly, by other screenwriters and directors One of the favorites is Charles Laughton admonishing Marlene Dietrich on the witness stand and dragging her through her lies one by one and ending with the much borrowed phrase “Were you lying then or are you lying now!”

Elsa Lanchester is mostly remembered as the Bride of Frankenstein. However, she was a very accomplished dramatic actor.

Marlene Dietrich, the ageless glamour queen, as the seemingly unfaithful wife, deserves great accolades for her portrayal. After all, she was best known for her foreign presence, not for her great acting abilities.

Billy Wilder co-wrote the script and directed this movie. The movie industry was lucky to ensnare this genius refugee from Eastern Europe. Many of the movies that he made can never be duplicated or remade. Look at the list; Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina (which is the last movie I saw with my father,) The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot, just to name a few.

As I have said before in other reviews, the black and white cinematographers in the 30's through the mid 60's had mastered the art of lighting and shadows to perfection. This movie was wonderfully shot by Russell Harlan and it is still crisp and fresh after more than 60 years. Since almost all the shots and sequences are shot indoors, his job was difficult.

Our verdict is, see it with your entire family and friends. What else do you want? Great story, wonderful acting outstanding direction and superb cinematography. Four stars.