Just like there are perfect storms, there are perfect movies. You know what I mean – those couple of hours “in the dark” (to aptly quote Norma Desmond) that entertainingly define picture fanatics’ love for cinema. Perfect writing, directing, acting, photography, editing, scoring, set and art design…the whole shebang. Billy Wilder’s 1958 (actually, a Christmas ’57 release) adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed work WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (now available in a spectacular new Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Classics) is a perfect movie. So run out and buy this immediately! End of review.
Okay, that’s the short story – well maybe the trailer. Many of the pic’s millions of fans know why it’s a must-have. For those few lucky ones yet to experience this masterpiece, allow me to fill you in on the details of the movie and its making. Hope I’m up to the task.
For director Billy Wilder, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was nothing less than a labor of love. It had to be – ‘cause it meant that the fiercely independent filmmaker, now free of Paramount and on his own, had to bite his lip and hook up with not one but TWO tight-fisted producers, Edward Small and Arthur Hornblow, Jr. These were the necessary evils required to bring Christie’s work to the screen – the wrongs of acquiring the rights. Fortunately, Wilder’s track record was such that he was pretty much left alone for the majority of the writing, shooting and post-production. The first effort of his new contract with UA, it would be the last time (at UA) that the director would allow himself to be aligned with human interfering ballast. From here on in – from Some Like it Hot to Avanti! – Wilder would answer to no one but himself, producing, directing and cowriting (with I.A.L. Diamond) his celluloid classics. Cutter supreme Doane Harrison, his trusted confidante from the Paramount days, would serve as associate producer and editorial supervisor. Truly a dream team.
But that was in the future. For now, Wilder needed a cowriter to test/bounce his ideas off of and to refine and, in turn, to go all sympatico with chosen one’s concepts and themes. He found his ideal work mate in veteran scribe Harry Kurnitz…well, sort of. Kurnitz shared Wilder’s snarky sense of humor and his dark overall view of life, specifically his brilliant skewering of Hollywood. As far as WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was concerned, Kurnitz was essential to the mix, as he was an Anglophile extraordinaire (what Wilder also later dubbed “a snob”). His detailed knowledge of all things British proved invaluable to Wilder and the set and costume staff. Where Wilder and Kurnitz parted ways was entirely on the subject of work ethic. Concisely put, Kurnitz hated work, putting it third on his priorities list, after flirting with women and coffee-housing. It was a real tooth-puller to get him moving. To this, the director resorted to his up-till-then patented technique of insulting his coworker to the point of a nervous breakdown. Not only DIDN’T this faze Kurnitz, but it actually had an opposite effect. Kurnitz appreciated Wilder’s wit – and would only respond by laughing heartily at each barb, often repeating them to friends, and even improving upon them. Nearly a decade later, Kurnitz would regale pals with tales of Billy by recounting all the Band-Aids he had to wear after a day’s writing (from the verbal lacerations). Asked to describe Billy Wilder, the renowned author would merrily state that it was tantamount to working with two people, or, in literary terms, Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde. Kurnitz readily admitted that the results proved pure gold, albeit modestly calling WITNESS a pretty good script (and what Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow would add “a superb film”).
The 1925 Christie short story was well known before Peter Saunders brought it to the London stage in 1953 (it would debut on Broadway the following year, with Saunders coproducing with Gilbert Miller). One of the most-revived plays from the post-war years, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION remains to this day a perennial thespian war horse, second only to the mystery writer’s 1952 triumph The Mousetrap, which has astoundingly never stopped running. Even in 1957, when Wilder and Kurnitz set to work on the piece (from an adaptation by Larry Marcus), the property was already considered a venerable standard. That Wilder would change any characters and/or plot points was thought of as heresy. That only fueled Wilder’s determined fire even more. After all, he had successfully done similar wonders with Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch (and remember his plan to film Pal Joey was to first off remove all the music). WITNESS is likely his greatest filmic transformation. But more on that later.
Paying tribute to not only Christie but to The Movies in general, Wilder beautifully managed to open WITNESS beyond its courtroom foundation. The story, in brief, concerns Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., a wily, acerbic acid-tongued old British barrister virtually intrigued out of retirement to represent a seemingly carefree pauper, Leonard Vole, accused of murdering a wealthy romantically-inclined dowager.
Unless you play it right, courtroom suspense pictures can quickly turn stale. Few can master this mystery sub-genre. Hitchcock, for example, couldn’t do it – and after the likes of The Paradine Case and I Confess, purposely avoided any connection to the bar, save the pub variety. This knowledge probably added adrenalin to Wilder’s already pulsating creative juices. Only Preminger, who had originally trained as a lawyer in Germany, was able to rival fellow the fellow Teutonic Wilder in exciting trial histrionics (Angel Face, Anatomy of a Murder).
Of course, Wilder held an ace up his sleeve – and that was his cast…celebrated folks whom, as they say, audiences would pay to see read the phone book against a white void for two hours. WITNESS is not merely a hand-picked array of beloved scene-stealers, but a veritable paradise for even-then iconic performers; it really could have been called Star Witness(es) for the Prosecution.
For the lead couple, Leonard Vole and his cold Bavarian immigrant wife, Christine, Wilder signed the handsome duo of Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. See – already you’re on a winning streak. Power, who, during the course of WITNESS’ 116 minutes, uncharacteristically explodes into a tense emotional ball of anxiety, rarely got the chance to strut his stuff as he does in this movie (well, maybe a tad in Nightmare Alley). It’s a mood-swing pip, as his often confused Vole instantly switches from happy-go-lucky to screaming, frenzied bewilderment. It’s possibly his best performance. Even his eyebrows get into the act – threatening to replace his once-flawless matinee-idol face with that of his Wally Beery-esque pater’s in The Big Trail. Yes, THAT severe. Dietrich is an even more monumental revelation – once and for all putting to rest any of her detractors’ cruel and untrue assessment of being a second-rate-Garbo (in fact, I’d love to have seen Garbo attempt to tackle this role, and, by that I mean I wouldn’t!). Dietrich’s multi-layered enactment is so mesmerizing that even after the picture ends, you still can’t fathom what she’s accomplished (as evidenced by the Academy’s dissing her as one of the picture’s six Oscar nods).
For Wilder and Dietrich, it was the continuation of a lifelong friendship that began when they were both up-and-comers in 1920s Berlin. Billy had directed Marlene superbly in 1948’s A Foreign Affair, and their joking with each other in German proved toxic to costar Jean Arthur, who increasingly became paranoid at their relationship. “She’s telling you to burn my close-up, isn’t she?” cried Arthur to Wilder. Wilder spent a great deal of time for the remainder of the picture soothing Arthur’s ego, constantly telling her how wonderful she was.
It was a lesson to be learned. During the shoot of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Wilder only conversed with Dietrich in full view of the cast and crew. In Wilder’s eyes, the hard-working Dietrich represented the gold standard for actresses. Not only was she giving 110%, but she loved to exhibit her culinary skills – arriving on the set ladened with rich, German delicacies that the actress had spent all night preparing. Wilder considered her the finest actress/caterer in the business.
Dietrich simply loved Billy as well; her notoriously brittle commentary on people in general (including mentor Josef von Sternberg) evaporated when it came to her gushing over Wilder. “He’s a saint!” she stated with authority that no one dare question.
Wilder returned the many compliments bestowed upon him by his costars via in-jokes, insidiously injected throughout the narrative. FYI, when Vole becomes reacquainted with eventual victim Emily French, it is in a movie theater showing a film about Jesse James. Jesse James was an early (1938) blockbuster for the then-young star. The casting of French itself is a reference to the acknowledged Master of Suspense, being played by Norma Varden – the infamous obliging victim of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.
A Dietrich homage is even more wink-wink/nudge-nudge, and thus slyly hilarious. To “open up” the picture, Wilder and Kurnitz inserted a flashback to Power’s first meeting Dietrich in Germany during the end of WWII. Dietrich, working as a sexy songstress/part-time hooker, warbles tunes to horny US and UK soldiers in a bombed-out dive called (wait for the pause) The Blue Latrine (a barely-visible flickering marquee, now more noticeable because of the B-D presentation).
Wilder also realized that you can’t have Marlene Dietrich in a movie without the actress unveiling her trademark exquisite gams. Therefore, after singing the provocative ditty “I May Never Go Home Anymore” (especially penned for the picture by Jack Brooks and WITNESS’ composer Matty Malneck), the armed forces unite to rapaciously tear the woman’s clothes off, succeeding in the destruction of one leg of her sexy slacks. That the scavenger Power (basically a smarmier rendition of William Holden in Stalag 17) seduces the siren by buying coitus with his stash of stolen food becomes a perfect evocation of Wilder’s version of a “meet cute.” As one might imagine, the opening up of both the picture and Marlene Dietrich’s legs (notwithstanding) doesn’t come cheap. The addition of this relatively short sequence inflated the budget by ninety thousand dollars.
The crème de la crème of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is neither Power nor Dietrich but the actual star of the picture, Charles Laughton. When one out-steals onscreen time from the aforementioned pair, you know you’re watching an undisputed master of the game. Laughton, like his luminous costars, has never been better – and, considering who we’re talking about, that’s says puh-lenty!
For Wilder and Laughton, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was indeed a fantasy come true. For years the two artists had been trying to find the perfect vehicle. Their teaming transcended a mutual admiration society – it was a mutual adoration society. A previous attempt occurred in the early 1950s. Wilder called Laughton into his office to relate an idea he had been working on. Much had been reported about in the news on how titled lords and ladies were now forced to open their castles/estates to the public in order to pay the humongous inheritance taxes (Stanley Donen made a picture about this in 1960, The Grass is Greener). As Wilder explained, Laughton’s character would be above this – having made a series of wise investments. One Friday every month, the distinguished squire would board a plane to meet with his financiers. It turns out that he flies to America, where he appears on Saturday Night Wrestling TV as the Masked Marvel. Laughton reportedly collapsed on the floor with laughter when he heard this. “More, more – tell me more. What happens then?” Sadly, Wilder shook his head and shrugged. “That’s just it. Once you reveal that gag, you can’t top it. The movie goes nowhere.” And that ended that. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION at last provided the scenario that showcased both artists at their peak.
What accentuated this even further was the introduction of a new character, Nurse Plimsoll (Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid is recovering from a massive heart attack). Plimsoll provided a choice role, lovingly concocted especially for the great Elsa Lanchester (aka Mrs. Laughton). The couple’s playing off each other, volleying one sarcastic swipe after another, comprises the best stuff in the picture. After more than a half-century, their by-play remains refreshingly funny and even risque (“We better go upstairs now, get undressed and lie down,” chirps the giddy pill-pusher – to which Laughton magnificently times “We? What a nauseating prospect!”). The Nurse Plimsoll character has become so attached to WITNESS that when a lackluster TV-movie version was made in 1982, it wasn’t a mere adaptation of the novel OR the play but and incorporation of the Wilder/Kurnitz screenplay (Plimsoll being one of the last roles played by Deborah Kerr).
Wilder’s unabashed praise for Laughton went far beyond the magic that unfolded in front of the cameras. Wilder’s emoting referred to the actor’s desire to act, act, and act. The director described one incident in particular involving extras hired as members of the jury/courtroom viewers. An entire day had been put aside to record their reactions to what was going on in the dock. It was Laughton’s day off, but he insisted on coming in and doing his readings for them (a job usually relegated to the AD). To quote Zolotow in his 1977 biography Billy Wilder in Hollywood, “Laughton begged Wilder to let him read all the off-camera speeches…He said the jury would react better…So he came and read all the parts – the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Una O’Connor – with different voices and gestures.” An unforgettable and amazing experience for the world-weary director who thought he had seen it all (Wilder and Laughton were keen to work together again, but, alas, it was not to be. Cast as Moustache, the barkeep in the director’s upcoming Irma La Douce, Laughton fell ill as the project concluded pre-production in 1962 , and passed away on December 15; his part, watered down, was eventually portrayed by Lou Jacobi).
Big surprise, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is liberally peppered with great one-liners, indicative of Wilder and Kurnitz. When Laughton pulls one of his famous legal tricks, Lanchester beams, “Wilfred the fox! That’s what they call him – and that’s what he IS!” It’s one of a handful of movie quotes that I personally paraphrase whenever I can.
There’s also a terrific moment when Laughton offers Dietrich a light. His animosity for her is clearly visible, and Marlene doesn’t miss a beat. “You’re burning my nose” she slowly replies as only she tauntingly can. Other gems include a discussion of Power’s plight being likened to a “drowning man clutching a razor blade” with “one foot on the gallows and the other on a banana peel.”
The supporting cast is outstanding, with O’Connor at the end of her career, brandishing her landmark suspicious, disgruntled maid with fantastic panache. And any cinephile worth his/her salt will see a red flag raised in reel one when the likeable Mr. Vole is brought in to consult with Sir Wilfrid by (wait for the pause, part two) Henry Daniell. Ian Wolfe is incredible too as Laughton’s devoted but selfish man-servant. Ditto John Williams as Laughton’s associate, Torin Thatcher as the prosecuting attorney and J. Pat O’Malley as a Bermuda shorts salesman.
The additional major technical credits read like a Who’s Who of celluloid. The picture was shot by Russell Harlan, designed by Alexandre Trauner and the music conducted by Ernest Gold.
Like all of the above, the Kino’s Blu-Ray of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is a stunner. The clarity heightens many of the visual puns, as well as allowing viewers to relish the picture’s immaculate attention to detail. Harlan’s black-and-white photography is, like Miss French, to die for. While I’ve never really seen an awful print of WITNESS, I’ve never seen a better one than this dazzling 1080p transfer. It’s the first time since 1957 that this movie can be enjoyed in its correct widescreen dimensions (the old MGM DVD did offer a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but NOT anamorphically). If one has to nitpick on any failings of the disc (and there really are none), I suppose I could state that the before-and-after shots appended to the opticals display a definite softness, the occupational hazard of the Blu-Ray format. But that’s it, buddy! The mono audio is fine, crisp and clear. A segment discussing the movie from the 2006 Volker Schlondorff interview/documentary, Billy Wilder Speaks, filmed in 1988 (in German w/English subtitles), is also included – yet another enticement for purchasing this disc.
Many peg Psycho as the movie that introduced the “No one will be admitted once the picture has started” disclaimer. Actually, a variation of this sure-fire hyperbole was utilized in WITNESS, beating Hitchcock to the punch by three years. A narrator even beseeches the audience over the end credits to STFU. This request is reasonably extended to the trailer (included on the platter), which further offers the “gotta act” Laughton talking to the popcorn-munching patrons about this remarkable show (“a series of climaxes I DEFY you to guess!”). If that wasn’t enough, we are warned that this movie contains the “10 most breath stopping minutes ever lived!” Jeepers!
It shouldn’t come as a shock that WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was a huge hit when released in 1957 (bringing in over nine million dollars in rentals, or seventy-five million in 2014 currency). Deservedly both Laughton and Lanchester were nominated for Oscars, as were Wilder (Best Director), Hornblow (Best Picture), Danny Mandell (Best Film Editing) and Gordon Sawyer (Best Sound Recording]), but amazingly not Power or (as indicated) Dietrich. Again, this is especially mind-numbing concerning the latter’s participation. I should mention that the final twist on the twist never really jolted me (as it has most of the picture’s audiences), but it is fantastic (and I am, admittedly, a jaded specimen). One does leave the proceedings with an impressed “Wow!” And that hasn’t changed in 57 years.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Black and white. Letterboxed [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD 2.0 MA [mono]. Kino-Lorber Incorporated. CAT # K1326. SRP: $29.95.