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Witness for the Prosecution – 1957 Wilder
- Billy Wilder adapts Agatha Christie to great success in Witness for the Prosecution. Witness for the Prosecution appears often on lists of the best court room films.
- Wilder’s achievement is muted, this is a greater accomplishment for Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Roberts and Marlene Dietrich as Christine. Laughton plays this Jabba the Hutt-looking lizard of a cantankerous old man. He is insulting everything and everyone for the entire running time of the film. But, he is hell bent on the truth- and he is so damn likeable despite the description here. “I’m a mean, ill-tempered old man who hates to lose.” Dietrich is the cold, calculating German. “I’m quite disciplined”- she’s a survivor- and for much of the film, she makes your blood curdle. She gets a big “damn you!” in the courtroom as she and Laughton play verbal chess. Dietrich (apparently devasted when she didn’t get a nomination) even gets a quick dual role with her little barroom “duckie” character—well done.
- Tragically, Tyrone Power would die the following year at the young age of 44.
- The film garnered six Oscar nominations.
- Laughton’s Roberts takes the case because he wants cigars. He stays this way till the end betting a box of cigars just before the final cross examination.
- There are flashbacks of Christine and Leonard’s (Power) meeting during the war. Wilder’s approach is utilitarian for the most part. He does play Laughton’s character’s health as a comedy, and the main story with the murder/trial as a serious mystery/drama (though the casting of talented comedienne Una O’Connor makes one wonder about the blending of the two).
- In a few sequences Wilder does try for some stronger compositions. This could not be mistaken for Kurosawa but at the 39-minute mark Laughton is in the foreground left facing the camera with John Williams’ character (fellow lawyer Brogan-Moore) facing the camera background right. At the 112-minute mark there is another one of these praise-worthy set-ups with Dietrich front left and Laughton in the background right (this is during the big epilogue reveal).
- Recommend but not in the top 10 of 1957