Sunday, February 19, 2006

Till Deposition We Part

The Billy Wilder Centennial

Released after Love in the Afternoon and The Spirit of St. Louis, Witness for the Prosecution would cap 1957 as Billy Wilders most productive year as an director. The film would also mark one of the last times that Mr. Wilder made a straight drama,(the last until 1978's Fedora) preferring throughout the last 25 years of his career to focus only on comedies, whereas previously he had alternating between that genre and drama and suspense films. Witness is most defiantly to be classified among the later, the only court room movie Wilder ever did, it was based on the stage play of the same name by mystery great Agatha Chrisite.

The play begins with Sir. Wilfrid Robarts (the rotund Charles Laughton) a well respecting English barrister and champion of lost causes, returning to his office for the first time sense suffering a mild heart attack. Sir Wilfrid is accompanied by his doting new nurse Miss Plimsoll (played by Laughtons real life wife Elsa Lanchester), whose primary job is to see that her charge does not over exert himself. Within minutes of getting back to his office (his living quarters are upstairs' in the same townhouse) he is visited by fellow lawyer Mr. Mayhew (Henry Daniell) who is bringing him a client involved in a sensational new case, a case that Sir Wilfrids health dictates he should turn down, but whose driven personality refuses to let him ignore.

The case involves a Mr. Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power), a man with a distinguished war record but little in the way of gainful employment who is suspected of the murder of wealthy widow Emily Jane French (Norma Varden). Mr. Vole though married had meet Mrs. French on the street several months before and the two had become close, he was also trying to interest her in financing the production of a new kind of egg-beater he had invented. When it turned out that the late widow had left Leonard #800,000 in her will, the police along with the deceased housekeeper Janet McKenzie (Una O'Connor) instantly turned there attention to Mr. Vole. The accused only alibi would need to come from his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) a former dance hall girl that Leonard meet and married during the allied occupation of Germany. But Mr. Vole is quickly beset by disillusionment when his supposedly loving wife decides to not to come to his defense but rather to be a ... dum, dum, dum, Witness for the Prosecution!

The rest of the film focuses on Sir Wilfrids attempts to prove his clients innocence against mountains of circumstantial evidence to the contrary, all the while attempting to sneak cigars and liquor from his overbearing nurse. Charles Laughton himself warns the audience in the films previews not to revel the ending to others, so in deference to the man I will refrain. It should be enough for me to say that this is a really good movie (#163 on the IMDB's top 250 list). The strange combination of a play by an English Anglican women and the direction of an Austrian secularist Jew actually comes off quite well, resulting in 2 hours of suspense said to come only "once in 50 years."

Note: This movie was the last film that Tyrone Power completed before his sudden death from a heart attack in 1959. At only 45 years of age his death was tragic, but perhaps even more tragic was that Witness proved he was finally learning how to act. Tyrone constant co-star throughout his leading man hayday at 20th Century Fox, actress Linda Darnell also died young, always deathly affraid of flames she died in a house fire in 1965 at the age of 41.


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