WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION topped a trifecta of fine 1957 releases from writer & director Billy Wilder. The Spirit Of St. Louis, his tribute to American aerial hero Charles Lindbergh, didn’t fare well due to its exorbitant cost, while Love In The Afternoon, a comedy doff to his film industry idol Ernst Lubitsch, found more reception abroad than in the States. The last out was this adaptation sprucing up Agatha Christie’s 1925 short story (later a play). Witness left the park as a homer, drawing rave reviews, coming in 19th among earners and pulling down six Oscar nominations. *
“One can get very tired of gratitude.”
Though his health is shaky, esteemed London barrister and sly old fox ‘Sir Wilfrid Robarts’ (Charles Laughton) takes on what may be the last case he can survive, defending the affable but rather slick ‘Leonard Vole’ (Tyrone Power) in a murder trial that looks much stronger for the Crown than for his emotional client. While the grumpy defender’s private nurse (Elsa Lanchester) fusses over his shoulder, Vole’s chilly wife, German-émigré ‘Christine Helm’ (Marlene Dietrich) enters the plot. Any more said about how it plays out would be an unfair spoil to delightful cat-mousing, played stops-out by the power-trio of stars, with vital support from Lanchester and the durable likes of Torin Thatcher, Henry Daniell (his urbane diction lent to a good guy role for once), John Williams and one-of–kind frump Una O’Connor. **
Witty all the way, paced out by Wilder (his co-writer was Harry Kurnitz) over 116 minutes, it was the year’s cheek-pinching legal mystery, arguing its case against the bracing jury deadlock of Twelve Angry Men.
“The question is whether you were lying then or are you lying now… or whether in fact you are a chronic and habitual LIAR!”
Dietrich, 56, signed on especially to work with Wilder, and gave her best performance since her previous job with the director, in 1948s Foreign Affair. The famed legs are still to be reckoned with. Power, 43, is very good (he was proud of this one), though he doesn’t look healthy, showing the wear and tear of booze and cigarettes that would kill him a year later while making Solomon and Sheba. While that flashy epic would have fit with the many adventure films he was known for (his heart attack came doing a sword fight, ironically/fittingly), his work in this courtroom intertwine makes for a more respectable last act. Good as the photogenic and charismatic two are, the movie chiefly belongs to the fully unglamorous Laughton, 58, whose sparring with (real-life wife) Lanchester is wickedly fun. Wilder allows him a rich docket of zingers and some choice speeches where the master makes every individual word he utters into an eloquent gift.
“My Lord, may I also remind my learned friend that his witness, by her own admission, has already violated so many oaths that I am surprised the Testament did not LEAP FROM HER HAND when she was sworn here today! I doubt if anything is to be gained by questioning you any further! That will be all, Frau Helm!”
With Francis Compton, Ian Wolfe, Norma Varden and Ruta Lee. In the year of The Bridge On The River Kwai, the Oscar nominations went up here for Best Picture, Actor (Laughton), Director, Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Film Editing and Sound. Produced for $3,000,000, it grossed $9,000,000.
* Three slick jobs in one year. In 1939 John Ford cleaned house with Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along The Mohawk. 1941 saw Raoul Walsh pull off High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and They Died With Their Boots On–and toss in Manpower for good measure. Michael Curtiz in 1942 delivered Casablanca, Captains Of The Clouds and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Hard-working old school craftsmen. Artists.
** Along with this being Power’s last role, it was also the final bow for 78-year old Una O’Connor: she died two months after it premiered. The tiny, rubber-faced Abbey Theater player was famous for her shrieking in Bride Of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.