The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Witness for the Prosecution

It's easy to take the Internet for granted because it's so prevalent in day-to-day life. Think about it when new movies come out. If said movie has an epic twist in the finale, it takes minutes, hours and if things are going really slow, about a day for word of that twist to spread like wildfire. That wasn't always the case, movie studios doing their best to keep the surprises and twists under wraps so audiences could head into the movies surprised. Some movies even requested audiences don't reveal the twists as the credits rolled, movies like 1961's Homicidal, 1960's Psycho, and for today's reading, 1957's Witness for the Prosecution.

Coming off some serious health issues, barrister (a lawyer for our American readers) named Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) returns to his office with orders to take it easy as he recovers. Naturally, Sir Wilfrid does just the opposite. Instead, he takes a high-profile case when he meets Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a WWII veteran who's been accused of murder. The victim was an older woman with plenty of money and no family, Leonard a recent addition to the woman's will. Wilfrid goes about preparing his case -- while dealing with his medical issues -- trying to work around the only alibi Leonard has, an alibi provided by Leonard's wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), but he would prefer not to call the cold Christine to the stand. Wilfrid believes Leonard to be genuinely innocent, but the amount of circumstantial evidence against him is daunting, and it continues to mount. A veteran of cases like this, even Wilfrid can't imagine how this case will develop.

Is there anything director Billy Wilder can't do? I submit that the answer there is a big N-O. His career filmography includes everything from comedies like Some Like it Hot to film noir-esque thrillers like Sunset Boulevard and darker social commentaries like Ace in the Hole. I guess it is only natural for him to check another sub-genre off the list, here at the helm of a courtroom drama. 'Witness' is based off a stage play from Agatha Christie who had adapted her own short story. The style plays like a stage-based play, long scenes of dialogue and exchanges going back and forth among characters, an impressive set even being built to stand in for the Old Bailey, a famous English courthouse in London, a very cool, claustrophobic set as the courtroom scenes develop, the black and white filming adding a minimalist touch. This is a movie considered a classic -- an 8.5 rating on IMDB, a 100% mark at Rotten Tomatoes -- but is it that good? I had some issues with it.

When I see ratings that high, I'm thinking we're talking about a perfect movie, or one pretty dang close to perfect. I liked 'Witness' -- it gets stronger near the halfway point -- but it slow-going early-on. Laughton's Wilfrid returns to his office in a scene that tries to play up the comedy as the medically-challenged Wilfrid deals with his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife in real-life). Did we need that bit of humor? The dynamic continues throughout the case, and yes, they've got chemistry but these attempts at humor seem out of place. As for the acting, Powers overacts to the point it is almost painful to watch. His reactions while other people testify is just rough, his Leonard screaming and grabbing the wall, pulling at his hair. Dietrich is both good and bad, at her best when she underplays it. Her performance over the last 30 minutes helps leave the viewer with a big positive as to the strength of her performance.

Much of the first hour focuses on the background, from Wilfrid's health issues, to meeting Leonard to several unnecessary flashbacks. We see him meet the old, rich Mrs. French (Norma Varden), in scenes more suited to a 1950s screwball comedy. We see him meet Christine in a bombed-out city in WWII, all scenes that feel forced in an effort to draw out the running time. Where the movie hits its stride is in the courtroom scenes, Laughton showing off that acting ability that appears effortless scene-in and scene-out. He underplays it to the point you take for granted what he's doing. Laughton makes a go of it, but these scenes are hurt by Power's efforts at some sort of method acting. Still, Laughton is a powerhouse (picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Actor), playing nicely off the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher). More negative/flaws than a classic should have, but Laughton rights the ship as much as he can.

Also look for John Williams as Brogan-Moore, Wilfrid's assistant in court, Henry Daniell as Vole's representative who brings the case to Wilfrid, Ian Wolfe as Carter, Wilfrid's assistant and office clerk, Una O'Connor as a key witness (possibly), and Francis Compton as the judge presiding over the case.

And then there's that ending. I had it spoiled for me years ago because a Boston Legal episode used that same catch, but even knowing it's coming up, that finale still works. The entire back and forth dynamic in the court sequences are the movie's strongest scenes, the last 20 minutes delivering three different twists that I would consider a genuinely good and legitimate twist. It's best you don't know any of them going into the movie so deal with it. You ain't getting any spoilers here. So while I struggled through the first 45-60 minutes, the last hour is pretty perfect. Loved Wilder's direction, and I especially liked Laughton's Oscar-nominated performance.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957): ***/****

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