Witness For The Prosecution – Billy Wilder
Wilder never lets the story become introspective: he mutes the tension between devotion and perfidy by keeping the audience entertained with various gimmicks. Witness for the Prosecution has an intelligent balance of courtroom drama, suspense, multilevel humor, and consummate acting. Wilder allows his actors a good deal of freedom. Power makes Leonard a sympathetic although basically shallow character. Just as Leonard seems incapable of stabbing a defenseless woman, his anguish and confusion during the trial appear symptomatic of an engaging naïveté. Yet he readily gives way to the smug callousness that his acquittal uncovers in him. Marlene Dietrich’s Christine embodies the right amount of iciness, mystery, and, in the cockney interlude, low comedy. She does overact embarrassingly when Sir Wilfrid destroys her on the stand and when she finally avenges herself on Leonard. On the other hand, Elsa Lanchester performs at her best as the irritating but loyal Nurse Plimsoll. She shows excellent rapport with Laughton, whether coddling him, berating him, or admiring him.
Witness for the Prosecution nonetheless becomes Laughton’s film: his Sir Wilfrid binds all together as he romps through each of his scenes. He bullies and cajoles, grimaces and smirks, assailing the veracity of witnesses by reflecting the glare from his monocle into their eyes. Surely the funniest episode in the film is his cross examination of Janet McKenzie (Una O’Connor), Mrs. French’s testy, practically deaf Scottish housekeeper, who hates Leonard for working his way into her mistress’ will and thus cheating her out of her share. Sir Wilfrid maintains his owlish dignity when he recognizes that Christine and Leonard alike have thoroughly duped him. Even though he suspected something because the solution turned out too pat, he admits that he never suspected Christine’s masquerade. He is aghast after she asks him once again, in her cockney dialect, if he wants to kiss her. Yet he passes over defeat into a new challenge, Christine’s defense, for she did not actually murder Leonard—”she executed him” he solemnly tells Miss Plimsoll.
Its surprise conclusion aside, Witness for the Prosecution appeals as a well-made, coherent melodrama whose performances engage at least as much as does the plot. It is a handsomely designed production, done almost entirely in interiors, the sets for the courtroom in the Old Bailey and for Euston Station, particularly, giving it a thoroughly London atmosphere. The film was Power’s last; he died a year later at the age of forty-four while filming Solomon and Sheba (1959), and his scenes were reshot with Yul Brynner. Laughton would make three more films, but in none would he get the opportunity to exhibit the range he does here, not even portraying the wily Senator Cooley in Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), his final role. As Sir Wilfrid, one reviewer noted, “the old ham has found the right platter.” Sir Wilfrid plays off excellently against Leonard: he becomes defender, then antagonist, of a killer who has ingratiated himself into a tremendous amount of loyalty from two older women. Mrs. French leaves him her fortune, and Christine sets herself up for a perjury conviction and a prison term in order to ensure his freedom. “The wheels of justice grind slowly,” Sir Wilfrid admonishes Leon¬ard at the end, “but they grind finely.”
Justice comes unexpectedly through the hand of a spurned woman. Leonard understands his acquittal as a piece of good luck and as the payment due for his bringing Christine out or Germany. Years of marriage have, however, failed to teach him an important thing about his wife, for if he accurately calculates the,,depth of her loyalty, he fails to reckon with the extent of her jealousy. All sympathy finally goes to Christine, whose acquittal seems assured with Sir Wilfrid by her side.