Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Directed by Billy Wilder

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The first thing Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution reminded me of was Kurosawa’s Rashomon.  Sure, maybe I only recently watched that film for the first time, or maybe Wilder captured some of what made that film so great and translated it into a more pulpy mainstream courtroom drama.

The story, almost set entirely inside a court or the office of lawyer Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton), is small in scope, picking apart the murder of an elderly woman.  The only suspect, Wilfred’s client, is Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power).  He is introduced as a Jack Lemmon kind of innocent character, but by the end of the film Wilfrid will accuse Vole of having “made a mockery of English law.”

The details of the murder and the intense scrutiny under which it is placed resembles other courtroom dramas of the time like Sidney Lumet’s tremendous Twelve Angry Men and Otto Preminger’s occasionally amusing Anatomy of a Murder.  The films contain a certain amount of humor and courtroom laughs, and the emotion of the crime is often lost in the practical study of the crime as it transpired.

By reducing a murder to each individual element, something is lost.  The focus is hardly, if at all, on the victim, and with the suspect’s guilt called into question we cannot feel the type of anger or despair typically associated with death because we are actively searching for the proper clues.  Stories like these, while captivating and true to a lawyer’s line of work, somehow betray our more basic impulses, and the point always seems to be that what is presented in front of you demands to be questioned.

Cash-strapped Vole is accused of killing Mrs. Emily French, a wealthy widow.  His case is presented to Wilfrid, an elderly lawyer only recently released from the hospital who is doted on by a young nurse.  Wherever he goes, she is near.  She removes his hidden cigars, reminds him to take his pills and insists he help his old ticker by only taking less exciting cases, like a divorce battle.

But Wilfrid wants something exciting, something criminal, and with Vole he gets it.  Before taking the case he listens to the seemingly happy-go-lucky man recount why he is the lead suspect even as he insists he has nothing to do with the murder.  In flashbacks we see how Vole and French met, certainly in an innocent enough manner, and the memories encourage us to believe in Vole’s innocence.

Wilfrid believes him too, and he takes the case even though the odds are stacked against him thanks to French’s will which has left eighty thousand pounds to the otherwise broke Vole.  To only complicate matters further, Vole’s German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) is a mysterious almost femme fatale type whose testimony will contradict Vole’s story.

I’m in the habit of describing the entire plot to the movies I write about, and I need to stop.

Witness for the Prosecution is a juicy little drama that becomes a thriller by the end of the movie.  Events unfold in such a way, with severe twists reframing the entire story, in only the last handful of minutes.  Sir Wilfrid, who begins the story as a witty, sardonic Winston Churchill type, loses all ego as he realizes he might not have been as in control as he once suspected, and the final act of the story builds on the subjectivity of Rashomon, letting us know that not everything we see presented onscreen is true just because it appears to be.

Film is inherently subjective, and from what I’ve read Rashomon was the first instance of a movie contradicting itself with flashbacks that only further obstruct the truth.  The philosophy behind that film was one of subjective truth, that there is no single truth because all that exists of the moment is what we take from it.  Since we all undoubtedly take away different meanings, even if in small ways, the past and the way we recall it is inherently subjective.

The best image I can think of to illustrate this point…


Witness for the Prosecution is a neat film, with all loose ends tied up in ways both sensational and absurd.  Wilfrid holds onto his ideals, and by the end, even though he was fooled, his underlying faith in balance is reaffirmed.

With this being an Agatha Christie story, like Murder on the Orient Express, maybe I should’ve expected the twist ending.

This is a fun movie, and Billy Wilder is an awesome director.  He made dramas (Stalag 17, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend), comedies (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, The Major and the Minor) and tragedies (Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole), and you can find a little of all of that in Witness for the Prosecution.

Up Next: Philomena (2013), Ready Player One (2018), The Plumber (1979)


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