I?ve always been a fan of courtroom dramas; in fact I?ve seen every single episode of Law & Order (which is no easy task.) For this reason I?m surprised I hadn?t already seen this very famous court room drama which was nominated for an Oscar in 1957, one of my favorite cinematic years. When I consider that this was directed by Billy Wilder and featured a very strong cast, I?m really shocked it took this long.
The film chronicles the trial of a man named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who stands accused of murdering an old woman in order to gain her inheritance. The prosecution?s case is largely circumstantial and an aging barrister named Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) decides to come out of near retirement in order to defend his innocence. The wildcard in the mix is that the key witness in the case, Vole?s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), appears to be a femme fatale and where her real allegiance lies is as much of a mystery to be solved.
The film is based on a short story by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie. As that author?s name would suggest, the film is at its core a mystery rather than a court room procedure. Like a mystery the film has all the meticulous structure one would expect, in fact that is the film?s strong point. All the clues and red herrings are perfectly planted and play out wonderfully.
The film has a great ensemble cast and at the center is the legendary Charles Laughton. Laughton shows all the charisma one would expect from a Barrister of his character?s reputation, but he also displays a physical frailty, one can see he?s putting his very essence into the case. Tyrone Power is also great here in his final screen role, the man he plays is a complete tool you can?t help but feel sorry for, and that is thanks largely to Power?s performance. Marlene Dietrich is also very strong here as the stone faced wife of the accused. Unfortunately the producers priorities with Dietrich were clearly misplaced and a very stupid flashback scene was tacked on for no reason than to get a glimpse at one of her famous legs.
The film?s director, Billy Wilder, is one of if not the, most important directors of the 50s. Many say that he, along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Otto Preminger, brought a new level of maturity to Hollywood films in the era. Wilder brought new levels of intellect to Hollywood with such films as The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and The Apartment. This intellectual innovation is not really on display in Witness for the Prosecution, but it is a very well told story nonetheless, and the film is a very fun ride.