Friday, February 20, 2015

Witness for the Prosecution (Edward Small Productions/United Artists, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie I’d recorded earlier in the day from TCM, Witness for the Prosecution, which was based on a play by Agatha Christie that in turn was adapted from a short story she wrote back in 1925 called “Traitor Hands. It was published that year in a magazine called Flynn’s Weekly and then in 1933 appeared in book form in the United Kingdom as part of a collection called The Hound of Death, though it wasn’t printed in the U.S. until 1948, when it acquired the title The Witness for the Prosecution and was published in a collection called The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. In 1949 it was adapted by Christie into a play for early television, and in 1953 she rewrote that version as a stage play which was adapted into a film by producers Edward Small and Arthur Hornblow in 1957. The film starred Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, and was directed by Billy Wilder — a formidable assemblage of talents indeed — from a script by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz based on an “adaptation” of Christie’s play by one Lawrence B. Marcus. When it was released in 1957 Christie proclaimed it the only movie based on any of her writings that she had actually liked (though shortly before her death she said she’d liked the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express as well) and Tyrone Power said it was one of only three films he’d made of which he was truly proud. (He didn’t mention the other two, but one was almost certainly the 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley, a superb movie he’d fought to make.) Marlene Dietrich said Wilder — with whom she’d already worked (though less successfully) in the 1948 film A Foreign Affair — was one of the three best directors she’d ever worked with, along with Josef von Sternberg and (surprisingly, given how little they did together — just a joint acting scene in the 1944 film Follow the Boys and her small character appearance in Touch of Evil) Orson Welles.

The plot deals with aging British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) — based, Bette Davis said in her autobiography, on the attorney who represented Warner Bros. in the lawsuit filed against her in England in 1936 to keep her from breaking her Warners contract by working in Europe — who as the film begins has just been released from hospital after a heart attack and is suffering under the ministrations of Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife), who’s determined to keep him on a strict diet and away from brandy, cigars and anything else that might further foreshorten his life. She’s also determined to keep him from taking on any high-profile criminal cases and wants him to continue his career doing simple, easy, lucrative legal tasks — the sorts of things that in the British legal system are generally the duties of a lower-level sort of attorney called a solicitor, who basically does corporate and business law while the higher-level attorney, a barrister, is the one who actually represents people at trial. (Interestingly, Mexican law makes a similar distinction between a licenciado, a business lawyer, and an abogado, a courtroom lawyer.) But Robarts gets a referral from Mayhew (Henry Daniell), a solicitor, a murder case involving World War II vet Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) — in the original 1925 story he was presumably a Great War vet (“The Great War” was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II) — who while stationed in Hamburg as part of the Allied occupation force in Germany after the war met and married Christine Helm (Marlene Dietrich), an entertainer in what was left of the city’s cabaret scene. Only the marriage wasn’t legal because Christine already had a husband she’d wed in 1942, who was stuck in the Russian occupation zone (what eventually became East Germany), and she made a fraudulent marriage to Leonard to get herself out of Germany and keep from being forced to rejoin her husband in the Russian zone.

The person Leonard Vole is accused of murdering is Emily French (Norma Varden — she’s dead at the start of the story but she’s seen in flashbacks, one of which contains a Wilderesque “in” joke — they run into each other at a movie theatre that’s showing a cheap Western about Jesse James; in 1939 Power had starred as Jesse James in a major prestige picture at 20th Century-Fox about the legendary outlaw), a well-to-do widow whom Leonard was hoping would back him in one of his inventions. She’s particularly impressed — and her housekeeper, Janet MacKenzie (Una O’Connor, reunited with Elsa Lanchester from the cast of The Bride of Frankenstein), is equally put off — by a bizarre contraption that’s supposed to be a new kind of egg beater that not only beats the eggs but separates the whites from the yolks. At first Sir Wilfrid is going to be a good little boy and refer Leonard’s case to fellow barrister Brogan-Moore (John Williams doing the same sort of drollery he pulled in Dial “M” for Murder and The Solid Gold Cadillac), but in the end — especially after giving Leonard his famous “monocle test” (he shines reflected sunlight from his monocle into Leonard’s eyes and determines, based on Leonard’s reaction, that he’s telling the truth) — he takes the case himself with Brogan-Moore sitting second chair. When Sir Wilfrid meets Christine he’s taken aback by her coolness and her seeming willingness to put the noose around her husband’s neck, since she not only comes into his office cool as the proverbial cucumber in the best imperturbable manner von Sternberg taught Dietrich, The case against Leonard looks solid — he had a shaky alibi to begin with (reliant on Christine’s testimony, which she’s already told Sir Wilfrid was merely what Leonard told her to say), he came home from discovering Mrs. French’s dead body with bloodstains on his coat sleeve, and he has 80,000 pounds’ worth of motive — the legacy Mrs. French had just left him in her recently changed will, which disinherited her housekeeper and therefore gave her just one more reason to hate Leonard. The trial looks to be going wretchedly for Leonard when Sir Wilfrid gets a phone call from a Cockney woman offering to sell him evidence that will discredit Christine, who had appeared as the prosecution’s star witness (unprotected by marital privilege since her marriage to Leonard was bigamous and therefore illegal), a series of letters between her and a lover named Max. Sir Wilfrid meets the mystery woman at a train station — and we can tell, even though we’re supposed to believe he can’t, that she’s Christine in disguise (and Dietrich’s Cockney is absolutely convincing); the letters discredit Christine’s testimony and Leonard is acquitted, but then there’s a typical Christie-ian surprise ending that was supposed to be such a jolt that over the closing credit there’s a voiceover telling the audience not to reveal it to their friends.

Witness for the Prosecution isn’t a great piece of storytelling — though at least the characters have a little depth and are not just Christie’s usual stick figures — but what makes this a great movie is Wilder’s direction (though the film is based on a stage play and most of it takes place on just one set, the courtroom in London’s Old Bailey where the case is being tried) and the bravura performances of his three leads. Laughton is, well, Laughton — in his memoir Hollywood Garson Kanin said Laughton (whom he directed in the film They Knew What They Wanted) was the sort of person who is difficult not because he particularly relishes being difficult but because he knows being difficult will make him the center of attention. Sir Wilfrid is the sort of character who also fits that description — whether badgering his nurse or his witnesses (especially the horribly hostile Christine and Janet), the super-lawyer seems more interested in making a great impression in court and getting everyone to Notice him than in winning his case. Tyrone Power, in his last completed film — the next year he started Solomon and Sheba, also with Edward Small producing, and shot about three-fifths of it before dying of a heart attack (Yul Brynner replaced him — and had to cover his famous bald pate with a wig so they could still use the long-shots of Power) — looks seedy and middle-aged, but he turns the loss of his good looks and his rather shaky acting skills to his advantage; even his occasional overacting works as the reaction of a highly theatrical con artist to being suspected, rightly or wrongly, of a horrible crime. And then there is Dietrich — what can we say? It’s a film redolent of her past — the cabaret she performs in during the flashback sequence is called Der Blaue something-or-other (I couldn’t make it out) and her song, “I May Never Go Home Anymore” (music by Ralph Arthur Roberts, lyrics by Jack Brooks), is essentially “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” meets “The Laziest Gal in Town” — and she’s superb as the morally ambiguous woman who hides whatever it is she’s actually feeling under that dark, impassive mask and matter-of-fact personal style. Though it’s not as good a movie as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard or Ace in the Hole (none of Wilder’s post-Ace in the Hole movies are; he never really recovered from the box-office failure of Ace and his subsequent decision to leaven his cynicism with comedy), it’s still a finely honed film with three great actors, a story that for all its faults at least provides them a sturdy framework, and a director who knows how to make even as ridiculously theatrical a property as this come alive and “live” on screen. I did wonder, however, why Turner Classic Movies, usually very good about letterboxing, showed this in a pan-and-scan print that all too often left people with only slices of their faces on either end of the screen!