Monday, June 25, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

This week I'll be taking a look at the last two "new to me" films seen at last month's 2018 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), seen on Saturday at the festival, technically wasn't actually new to me, insofar as I had seen it as a teenager; however, I remembered nothing about it other than that I had liked it. It's rather surprising I'd never gone back to it in the years since, given how much I like Tyrone Power, but seeing it on a big screen was a great way to revisit it!

Ironically, although I was enjoying it quite well, I faded out a bit toward the end of the movie -- it was the fourth film I'd seen that day so I suppose that will happen once in a while! Shortly after I got home I ordered the Kino Lorber DVD, and I just rewatched the last 40 minutes or so of the movie. I'm glad I did, as I had missed a couple key plot points last month before I tuned back in for the final minutes.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is based on an Agatha Christie play; director Billy Wilder cowrote the screenplay with Harry Kurnitz, based on an adaptation by Lawrence Marcus.

Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Roberts, a famous barrister in failing health. He's supposed to be sticking to boring cases which won't tax his energy but instead Sir Wilfrid takes on the defense of Leonard Vole (Power), accused of murdering a wealthy woman (Norma Varden) who left him a fortune in her will.

Vole claims he didn't know about the will and had befriended the lonely woman in hopes she might finance one of his inventions. He also claims to be happily married to Christine (Marlene Dietrich), whom he met in Germany during the war. Christine provides Leonard with an alibi, but things get interesting when she's called as a witness for the prosecution.

There are a number of twists and turns from that point, none of which will be revealed here! The film is quite theatrical in its presentation and rather shows its stage roots, between the limited number of sets and the somewhat exaggerated performances of the leads, but the style fits the story. It's a very entertaining film, well worth checking out.

Laughton is surrounded by some wonderful players including Elsa Lanchester in a terrific turn as the nurse supervising his convalescence from a heart attack; his colleagues are played by a trio of great character actors, Ian Wolfe, John Williams, and Henry Daniell. Laughton and company, especially Lanchester, provide some good laughs to balance out the suspense of the murder trial.

Power is quite creepy as the sleazy, slippery Vole. Sadly, this was his last released film before his untimely passing in 1958, just 44 years old.

I had completely forgotten Ruta Lee was in this until quite recently, and it was wonderful to have her at the festival to share stories about making the movie, which I wrote about in my May 12th festival recap.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION runs 116 minutes. It was filmed in black and white by Russell Harlan.

Kino has also released this film on Blu-ray. It was released on VHS in 1999.

This film is available to rent via streaming on Amazon.


Blogger barrylane said...

This is the version to watch for pure entertainment, but Witness has had other incarnations, both made for television. In 1982 a competent if boring production with Beau Bridges, Diana Rig and Ralph Richardson. All competent, but that does not compare with brilliance. And in the last year or two a British production that had fine production design but seemed to take forever. The murder victim was played by Kim Cattrall, not quite at her sexiest, but that was the idea in her casting. Everyone else, just a bore, not because of their performances, but the way the situation and material was restructured. I saw it, wish I had not. This time around Witness got The Last Year At Marienbad spin.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, good review without revealing anything of the spoiling nature. I highly recommend this version above the 1982 Hallmark Hall of Fame one, which was good, but the 1957 version is a masterpiece. It is the last thirty minutes that make this movie a masterpiece. This Agatha Christie play has it all, because it has murder, romance, suspense, and humor. It is such a pleasure to watch and appreciate this wonderful masterful cast.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Interesting to hear about the 1982 version, I don't believe I've ever come across it. It's hard to imagine Kim Cattrall being the murder victim. This 1957 version is so much fun I think I'll stick with it when I want to revisit the story. :)

Best wishes,

4:21 PM  

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