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Witness For The Prosecution - After Over 60 Years, This Film Still Works!


TomJH
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I hadn't seen Billy Wilder's courtroom thriller for a few years and I remembered it pretty well. Still, I thought last evening was time for a re-view and, once again, I was completely captured by this clever, witty adaption of Agatha Christie's stage play.

The ensemble cast is quite marvelous, with Charles Laughton a brilliant standout in one of his showiest roles. The actor received his last Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sir Wilfred (losing out to Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai). If Laughton had won instead it would not have been an inappropriate victory, in my opinion.

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But Elsa Lanchester is a marvel as his nattering nurse, as is Una O'Connor as the cantankerous maid of the murder victim (Una, by the way, was the only member of the original Broadway production cast in this film). Both Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, in addition to the star power they bring this film, give fine accounts of themselves, Dietrich getting to do some unexpected character work in the process. It's a shame that this was Power's last completed film, not only because he was tragically young (44) but as his career was clearly on an upswing when this film was released.

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The film's recreation of Old Bailey, the star of the film in so many ways, seethes with authenticity, and the changes brought to Christie's play, include the twist and double twist at the end (which shocked and double shocked me when I first saw the film) still work extraordinarily well, even when you know they're coming.

I've read that some movie fans mistakenly gave Hitchcock credit for this film. To be sure, it doesn't exactly seem like typical Billy Wilder material, does it. But this high powered courtroom drama is the Wilder triumph that Hitchcock had wanted for his Paradise Case but didn't get (all that interference from producer David O. Selznick probably didn't help too much there). Laughton was in that film, as well.

The last time I saw Witness was about five or six years ago with a friend. She had never seen the film before and kept guessing out loud what the ending would be. She was so sure of herself, too. But when the revelations finally came all I heard was a "WHAAAAT!?!" from her direction of the room and saw a mouth hanging open in surprise. Got ya!

Witness for the Prosecution remains my favourite movie courtroom thriller. If it sadly turned out to be Power's last completed film, at least he went out with a classic. To the best of my knowledge, Ruta Lee, who has a small role in the film, is the sole surviving cast member (not only that, according to IMBd, the lady is still active).

Any other fans of this film, and are there any other courtroom dramas you think compete with this one in quality?

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I'm a fan of the 1982 TV remake. Deborah Kerr is excellent in Lanchester's role; and Ralph Richardson takes over Laughton's part. The supporting cast includes Diana Rigg, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence and Wendy Hiller. I feel it's almost as good as the original.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084911/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_6

It was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production that aired on CBS.

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Any other fans of this film, and are there any other courtroom dramas you think compete with this one in quality?

I always like to think of Leo McKern in Thames' Rumpole of the Bailey as the "contemporary TV update" of Sir Wilfred Roberts, Charles Laughton or Ralph Richardson version:

Also a barrister of lost defense cases, for those who wish Agatha could have written a few more.

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Great film. The ending always gets me, no matter how often I see it. 

Another courtroom film I'm quite fond of is not really a courtroom film, though the climax plays like one. It's Stanley and Livingstone, when the assembled members of the Royal Geographical Society, meeting in Brighton, convene to hear Stanley's story, which they disbelieve at first. That "court" scene, and the arrival of Stanley's proof, read by Miles Mander. is really thrilling.

Another favorite (and a true courtroom film) is The Young Philadelphians, though I never understood how Paul Newman was so sure that witness Richard Deacon (on the stand) was going to drink that glass of gin, an act which helps acquit defendant Robert Vaughn.

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I watched the 1982 made-for-TV remake of Witness for the Prosecution tonight.

It's a well made film, largely sticking to the same screenplay as the Billy Wilder film, with only a few variations, and with much of the same dialogue. But it lacked the dynamics of the original film for me. Ralph Richardson, as Sir Wilfred, is effective but far more low key than was Laughton, whose theatrics dominated his scenes.

Acknowledging the fact that I have always loved the Wilder original, which, I suppose, prejudices me towards it, still, listening to Richardson's subdued delivery of some of the same dialogue that Laughton thundered in the courtroom was a bit off putting for me.

The rest of the cast was comprised of Beau Bridges as the murder suspect, Diana Rigg as the wife and title character (she has an effective moment at the end), Deborah Kerr as the nurse (she's good but can hardly replace Elsa Lanchester) and Wendy Hiller in the old Una O'Connor role as the maid (again, give me the eccentricity of Una in this role).

While the TV version will never replace the Billy Wilder film in my esteem, the cast is, obviously, a highly professional one, and the film is worth a look, I feel.

But there will only ever be one Sir Wilfred Roberts, in my opinion . . .

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Heh, thanks for your comments on this movie, Tom. I was surprised when reminded this was a Billy Wilder film.

Wilder's body of work is really just amazing-so varied, so consistently excellent. Sure, he pretty much always chose great material (wasn't aware this was an A. Christie story) & had the best talent in front of the camera....but there must be more to it considering just how great his movies are.

Do you think any of Wilder's success could be attributed to those behind the camera as well? For example, did he often use the same editor?
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I'd say this film still works if one was a fan of it to begin with.  As for comparing it with other courtroom dramas....

The fact that it depicts the protocol of the British courts, comparing it to any film depicting the protocol in U.S. courts is pointless. The only comparisons that can be made would be for;

Story, actor/actress performance, cinematography and such.  

What I liked best about this movie was Laughton's off-beat character, the insight to how British courtrooms looked and worked.  I've seen others I thought had more compelling stories as courtroom drama.  Like ANATOMY OF A MURDER, and THE STORY ON PAGE ONE, both  which coincidentally came out the same year.  ;)

Sepiatone

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4 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

Do you think any of Wilder's success could be attributed to those behind the camera as well? For example, did he often use the same editor?

Well, of course Wilder had long standing relationships with a couple of co-writers during his career, Charles Brackett, through his hits of the '40s up to Sunset Boulevard, and I.A.L. Diamond, starting with Love in the Afternoon in 1957 and continuing with Some Like It Hot and his hits of the early '60s.

For Witness for the Prosecution, however, Wilder's co-writer was an old poker buddy of his, Harry Kurnitz. While there was a lot of London location shooting for the film, the Old Bailey Courtroom scenes were shot in the Sam Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood.

Since you asked about Witness in regard to its high powered editing, it was a first time collaboration for Wilder with Daniel Mandell. Wilder was obviously pleased with the results since Mandell would then work with him on all his films from The Apartment straight through to The Fortune Cookie six years later.

Somewhere I read that Wilder called Witness the happiest movie set on which he worked. After shooting had been completed he and Tyrone Power took a vacation together in Austria and then Liechtenstein (try spelling that one without looking it up). Laughton joined them along the way.

This film was a reunion for Laughton and Power, Laughton having directed the actor on the stage in John Brown's Body about three years before. By the way, when Laughton was dying of cancer in 1962 Wilder told him he had a juicy part for him in Irma La Douce (the role that Lou Jacoby would eventually play).

It must have pleased Laughton in those final weeks to know he was wanted by a major director for a good part in a major production. Telling the dying old trouper he had a part waiting for him once he recovered was a real kindness by Wilder to a friend.

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I've read Christie's short story, which ends abruptly with the telling statement from Vole's wife to Sir Wilfred.  I haven't read the play though. It opened on December 16, 1954, at Henry Miller's Theater in NYC. Sir Wilfred was played by Francis L. Sullivan. During the play's run, Sullivan became a U.S. citizen. Leonard Vole was played by Gene Lyons.  Lyons  did a lot of television work in the 60s and 70s, and also appeared in a regular role on "Ironside." Vole's wife was named Romaine (sounds too much like lettuce). She was played by the British actress Patricia Jessel and got good reviews. Horror fans will remember her as the "head" witch in Horror Hotel. As others have noted, Una O'Connor played Janet MacKenzie. 

 

 

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This is perhaps my favorite Laughton picture. He is simply brilliant. My least favorite scene is the flashback to where Power meets Dietrich. Oddly enough, I picked up a 16mm print of the ABC Network presentation and that scene was cut from the negative (for time, of course).

Anyway, the only thing that hazards giving away the "deception" and I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it, is the audio. But that is a very minor quibble. It is a brilliant film and it's great to see such venerables as Henry Daniell, Ian Wolfe, Philip Tonge, Norma Varden, Una O'Connor and even "youngsters" like Torin Thatcher.

This is one film of which I never tire.

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7 minutes ago, Ray Faiola said:

This is perhaps my favorite Laughton picture. He is simply brilliant. My least favorite scene is the flashback to where Power meets Dietrich. Oddly enough, I picked up a 16mm print of the ABC Network presentation and that scene was cut from the negative (for time, of course).

 

I'm pretty sure that scene was not in the play but written for the film as sort of a homage to Dietrich's Berlin Blue Angel roots. It also gave her a chance to get romantic with Power, though, to be honest, the lady's age was showing a bit here and I can never take it quite seriously that Power's character would be attracted to her. Dietrich who, I admit, aged well, still had more than a decade on Power.

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I agree with everything the OP had to say about the film and I've watched it many times too and thoroughly enjoyed it, even with foreknowledge of "the twist".

For me, the other great courtroom drama which I unfailingly watch is Anatomy of a Murder (1959). James Stewart masterfully underplays the role of the dour Michigan defense lawyer and Arthur O'Connell has one of his best roles as his mentor who has lost his way. Eve Arden is brilliant in her atypical dramatic role as Stewart's secretary and watchdog. And Lee Remick is so perfect that I was stunned to later learn that Lana Turner had been talked up for the part. (I like Lana when she stays in her lane, but I think she could have diminished if not ruined this film.) Again, it's a case of knowing all the twists and turns in advance yet still loving to see it all unfold.

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5 minutes ago, DougieB said:

I agree with everything the OP had to say about the film and I've watched it many times too and thoroughly enjoyed it, even with foreknowledge of "the twist".

For me, the other great courtroom drama which I unfailingly watch is Anatomy of a Murder (1959). James Stewart masterfully underplays the role of the dour Michigan defense lawyer and Arthur O'Connell has one of his best roles as his mentor who has lost his way. Eve Arden is brilliant in her atypical dramatic role as Stewart's secretary and watchdog. And Lee Remick is so perfect that I was stunned to later learn that Lana Turner had been talked up for the part. (I like Lana when she stays in her lane, but I think she could have diminished if not ruined this film.) Again, it's a case of knowing all the twists and turns in advance yet still loving to see it all unfold.

I didn't know that Lana was up for the role in AOAM,  but I don't think anyone could have done a better job than Remick.    Could Lana have provided the same 'vibe' as Remick?     Remick gives off a vibe that she is more than just a 'girl that just wants to have fun'.   Yea Stewart compels the wife to change her looks to appear more conservative and while that 'works' with the jury,  the audience has already been exposed to the same vibe the lawyer saw that made him demand she change how she comes off.     Not sure stay-in-her-lane Lana could have pulled that off.

As for WFTP;  First rate film.   A film that is mostly dialog and lacks 'action' is often hard to keep interesting but this one pulls it off in spades. 

  

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3 hours ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

 

As for WFTP;  First rate film.   A film that is mostly dialog and lacks 'action' is often hard to keep interesting but this one pulls it off in spades. 

You're right that the script holds the interest even though the story unfolds in a leisurely way. I love Wilder's comic touches too, which also help hold interest, especially the comic byplay between Laughton and Lanchester as they battle over his beloved cigars. 

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38 minutes ago, DougieB said:

You're right that the script holds the interest even though the story unfolds in a leisurely way. I love Wilder's comic touches too, which also help hold interest, especially the comic byplay between Laughton and Lanchester as they battle over his beloved cigars. 

To me Wilder is the master at adding comic touches to scenes that have serious content \ context.   E.g. comparing the 1995 Sabrina with Wilder's 1954 version.    E.g. the scene where Sabrina is told by Linus that this 'love thing' was all a scam or the one after that between the brothers.     Wilder keeps these light.  

Instead Pollack directs these as straight serious scenes and thus loses the magic of what is going on.

The Apartment is the best example of the Wilder touch.     

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Funny you mentioned ANATOMY, Dougie. Whenever either AOAM and WFTP are mentioned, I have to take a moment to differentiate them, "The one with Laughton/Dietrich or the one with Stewart/Lee Remick?". Guess they are equally powerful & enjoyable films for me. 

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