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Movie Reviews

Witness For The Prosecution



Released: February 6th 1958 (UK)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich

Certificate: PG (UK)

Reviewed By: Phillippe Ostiguy

Oh, Billy. There really isn’t much I can cool-headedly say about Mr. Wilder; in fact it is for me impossible to mention his name without accompanying it with twinkly-eyed gushing. If, like most, he has some average movies to his name, he is at his best the absolute definition of flawless filmmaking. We’re speaking of a specific type of impeccability, perhaps most recently exemplified by last year’s True Grit – you know the type. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not offbeat, it’s not disturbing, it’s not flashy and it’s not too human. It’s a damned good script, damned good actors, damned good storytelling and it never goes out of style. That’s what Billy did, film after film, decade after decade.

Witness for the Prosecution has him trying his hand at the courtroom drama, its plot loosely based on a short story by Agatha Christie. The promotional campaign accompanying its release said little (even the trailer showed no scenes) and urged fans and journalists to hush too, to rave about the picture all they liked but to keep its ending hushed. Watching it, it’s obvious why – and I do highly recommend the surprise. Fun fact, the producers only agreed to premiere it to the Royal Family after they too promised not to reveal a thing.

It stars Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrad Robarts, a cynical old lawyer with a fragile heart and an agile head, imposing his acid wit on everyone in his vicinity. Everyone, but especially his nurse, played by Elsa Lanchester, with whom he is dry and condescending in ways that betray the two actors were in fact married. It co-stars Tyrone Power as a poor man accused of murdering a rich widow who had for him big red love and the testament to prove it, and Marlene Dietrich as his wife in a stellar performance from which an Academy Award – or at least a nomination – was robbed by the secrecy surrounding the film. Oh, you’ll understand.

Other fun fact, it cost $90,000 to add the scene in which one of Dietrich’s legs is shown, a scene not in the initial script.

The thing about Billy Wilder’s flawlessness is he makes it look easy. Every other line is bursting with spirit yet most are dismissed by the actors as though they were saying “thank you”; every scene goes by smoothly, at just the right pace, so cleanly that you’re left asking your television if the people on set even realized how finely they were doing. Well, they most likely did. They just didn’t care to show off.

Sure, this is all fairly general Wilder-related rambling, but it is fully applicable to Witness for the Prosecutionabout which I cannot say much more without dropping a few pieces of the puzzle. For the sake of suspense and not-so-mindless entertainment, offer it your next lazy Friday night, will you?

Other other fun fact, Hitchcock said he was often complimented for Witness as many thought it was him behind the lens.

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