Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

If there is a jauntier movie about a man defending himself against charges of murder than Witness for the Prosecution, I haven't seen it. There are literally hundreds of movies like this, where "innocent men" in the wrong place or the wrong time endure a nightmarish trial with their very lives hanging in the balance. Most are dramas, many are melodramas, some are suspenseful, plenty are overly mopey. Billy Wilder, genius that he was, made a comedy about a man on the steps to the gallows. Incidentally, Wilder would later remake The Front Page into another comedy about an innocent man awaiting execution, but that's more from the perspective of the newsmen reporting the story, not the man whose head is being fitted for the noose.

Based on a Agatha Christie short story and, later, a play for television (starring Edward G. Robinson) and the stage, it is, in the classic Wilder style, a slyly funny movie about a deadly serious subject. The immortal Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid, an aging barrister still recovering from a heart attack, hounded by an oppressive nurse (Else Lancaster) who won't let him smoke and drink and do his job as he's accustomed to ("If I'd known you'd talk so much, I wouldn't have woken from my coma," he tells her in one of their more pleasant exchanges). He's barely been back on the job an hour when a case falls in his lap: Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of killing an old rich widow and he claims he's innocent. Sir Wilfrid interrogates him, blinds him with light from his monacle, and so believes him. But Leonard's German, former cabaret singer wife Christine (vintage Marlene Dietrich) cooly informs the lawyer that she will say what her husband wants because she indebted to him but that she is, in fact, still married to a man in Germany, and that she is, in fact, not entirely certain of her husband's alibi.

You can see the rough outline of the play: the first half largely takes place in Sir Wilfrid's office, the second half in a British courtrooom. The second half is certainly little heavier than the first, but Wilder (or perhaps Christie, I guess) keeps things light even during the darker moments. One of the witnesses against Vole is his alleged victim's housekeeper, who's hard of hearing, and Laughton's brilliant cross-examination of her exposes her malady simply by modulating the tone of his voice to very funny effect. As the witness steps down, she protests that's she's demanded a hearing aid from the state but still hasn't received one. She asks for assistance in the matter from the judge, who replies, "My dear madame. Considering the rubbish that is being talked nowadays, you are missing very little."

I want to, but I won't discuss the great, great ending of the film which includes the sort of shocking, wild plot twists (yes, multiple) that tons of movies try to do (most recently, the wretched Smokin' Aces) but can't pull off. The movie has at least four good twists, three of which come flying fast and furious in the final scene. It's an ending good enough to give you whiplash.

I watched Witness for the Prosecution in the early hours of Valentine's Day, and it seems like an oddly appropriate choice, especially for those out there who like to remind us that this isn't much of a holiday and that it's largely promoted and maintained by greeting card manufacturers and flower wholesalers. Beneath the comedy and the story of Vole's trial, Witness is about the relationship between Leonard and Christine, about the sacrifices one spouse will make for the other, how deep love goes, and how, ultimately, it's basically impossible to tell how someone really feels about you until they save your life or stab you in the chest. And by that point it's to late to do anything about it.

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