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Witness for the Prosecution

Few writers could improve upon Agatha Christie's skill for intricate plotting, but leave it to Billy Wilder to come up with better characters and dialogue. As it stands, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is a cinematic cocktail of two disparate talents that ranks among Wilder's best films, as well as perhaps the best movie ever made from a Christie property. Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a London barrister who is facing semi-retirement due to poor health and nagging nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). But when the strange case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) falls at his feet he finds it irresistible. It seems that Vole had a social acquaintance with a wealthy widow (Norma Varden) who was recently found murdered in her home. The police suspect Vole — especially, as it turns out, he stood to gain £80,000 from her estate — and only his wife, German-born Christine (Marlene Dietrich), can provide an alibi. Christine assures Sir Wilfrid that she will give convincing testimony, but the aging barrister thinks there's something fishy about the whole case. It's only in court that he learns just how correct his suspicions are. Christie's Witness for the Prosecution first opened on the London stage in 1953, and after its 1954 New York debut a bidding war erupted in Hollywood for the film rights. The project eventually became Wilder's, and it's little surprise that he kept the barest essentials of Christie's work, revising whole portions of the play as it suited him. Gone is the intellectual Sir Wilfrid in the original, replaced by an acid-tongued, chain-smoking rascal who must battle both legal adversaries and an overbearing caretaker (informed that Miss Plimsoll will resign if he does not get himself to bed, Sir Wilfrid replies "Splendid — give her a month's pay and kick her down the stairs.") Also adjusted is the role of Christine, which Wilder was only too happy to give to his old friend Dietrich, even creating a German cabaret scene for her in flashback (and a saucy shot of her famous legs). What remains of Christie's play is what made it a hit in the first place: an intriguing premise, courtroom surprises, and a final series of twist endings that makes the viewer want to see the whole thing all over again. And yet, even with stars Power and Dietrich on the marquee as the mysterious husband and wife, Witness for the Prosecution is a showcase for Laughton and Lanchester, who have such delicious comic timing with their endless bickering that few should be surprised to learn they were married in real life. MGM's DVD release features a clean transfer (1.66:1) from a source-print that has evident wear, but also good low-contrast details, while the clear audio is the original mono (DD 2.0). Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—JJB



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