Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

witnessfortheprosecution

If I ever get into trouble I wouldn’t be surprised if my wife testifies against me, good thing I’m not likely to find a wife anytime soon!

Screenplay By: Harry Kurnitz & Billy Wilder
Directed By: Billy Wilder

Writing about acting can be tough. By its very nature I believe acting should never call attention to itself, yet every time I highlight a performance from an actor or actress I make mention of the things they did that caused me to pay attention. The reasoning behind this is that great performances capture your attention without the actor attempting to garner attention through said performance. Is your head hurting yet, because I know mine is! This relates to Witness For The Prosecution because at times I was mesmerized by the acting and at others I was left bewildered by what I was seeing.

Marlene Dietrich is superb in her role as Christine Vole, she is cold and serene until she needs to break down and when she does break it is realistic. She also pulls off the dual role of the cockneyed Brit supplying the letters to perfection. Charles Laughton carries the movie at times as Wilfrid Robarts. He is funny, he is snappy with his dialogue and he sells his character and the eventual reveal to the audience. Those two performances are examples of great acting, the type that doesn’t call attention to itself.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole. There are times when his performance is quite good, such as during Christine’s initial testimony. He expresses perfectly in facial expressions alone what we feel that his character should be going through at that moment. But, there are moments such as when he takes the stand that he goes for too much emotion and becomes cartoonish in his attempts to garner sympathy from the audience. Those moments are what I mean when I talk about acting calling attention to itself.

When talking about Witness For The Prosecution the major focus will be on the twist at the end, and deservedly so. The twist was yet another part of the film that completely worked for me in some areas while raising some issues for me in others. The actual twist is genius, I wasn’t familiar with the novel so I never saw it coming. The way it is handled is subtle and laid out in a fashion that the audience can understand. However, I did have a problem with the initial framing of the reveal scene. All of a sudden out of nowhere only Christine and Wilfrid are in the courtroom, and that struck me as too fake of a set-up for the reveal. There is symmetry in the final fate of Leonard and I loved that aspect of the reveal. But, his death is rather emotionally bereft. His death just happens, and it feels very cold and not matching with the emotion the scene had been delivering up until that point.

Witness For The Prosecution is a well acted, for the most part, and smartly written film. It is funny in parts, features some truly great courtroom banter and a twist that ranks as one of the all time great ones in cinema. Witness For The Prosecution has its flaws, but they are few and are easily outnumbered by all the positives the movie contains. Witness For The Prosecution should join the ranks of courtroom dramas that all movie fans need to see, besides, it’s Billy Wilder I shouldn’t have to recommend a Billy Wilder picture to anyone.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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