Witness for the Classic

Space queens and flying robots may be my go-to, but I am certainly not movie ageist. Bring me a film from 2 years ago, 30 years ago, or 50 years ago and I will give it a go. The black and white doesn’t really make a difference, except that applying a sensual shade of lipstick kind of loses its edge. In fact, if you’re in the mood for something really dramatic, like your prom date when you forgot the corsage, those classics hold nothing back. There’s something about the stage-actors-turned-film-actors who bring such emotionally enthusiastic performances straight from script to screen. In theater school teachers say, “Give it your all and I’ll let you know when it’s too much.” Well, it’s never too much, and these golden age greats were clearly of the same philosophy.

There are two stories going on in Witness for the Prosecution: Sir Wilfred’s (Charles Laughton) delicate state of health, and Leonard Vole’s (Tyrone Power) alleged involvement in the murder of Mrs. French (Norma Varden). Sir Wilfred has just returned from the hospital after suffering a heart attack, to no one’s surprise whatsoever. He’s under the careful watch of his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who treats him like a toddler and foils every attempt at lighting a cigar. Sir Wilfred is fed up with bedrest and is eager to launch back into his role as barrister. As if on cue, Leonard Vole enters claiming that he’s been accused of a murder he didn’t commit. Vole was friends with the lovely old Mrs. French, and sure he was at her house on the night of the murder, but he would never harm such a kind, lonely lady. Sir Wilfred agrees to take Vole’s case and prove his innocence, playing deaf to his nurse’s objections. Sir Wilfred’s first step is to speak to Vole’s wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a German woman who married Vole after the war. Sir Wilfred doesn’t trust Christine and it’s not because everyone in 1950s London is a misogynistic racist. No, there’s something off about her cold nature and Vole’s passionate plea of innocence, not to mention the involvement of French’s housekeeper.

The mystery only deepens when both Vole and his wife pass Sir Wilfred’s polygraph monocle test. Yes, Sir Wilfred is the kind of bulging gentleman who sports a monocle. But underneath that monocle, which demands instant respect, Sir Wilfred is a total jackass. I feel for poor Nurse Plimsoll who does her best to keep this obese, alcoholic, chain-smoking, workaholic senior alive, and gets duped at every corner regardless of her bribes and nagging. Sir Wilfred has one foot in the grave but God help him if he doesn’t use the other foot to trip up the prosecution.

All the evidence points to Vole, but the prisoner gives such an honest plea of innocence that it’s obvious he’s being framed. But by whom? Who done it? It’s the nagging question we all want answered but Sir Wilfred’s focus right now is to prove that, regardless of who it was, it wasn’t his client. The evidence in court flies back and forth and we are stuck in a swirl of excellent shots and impressive deflections by both sides as Vole sits in the box and sweats out half his bodyweight.

Most of Sir Wilfred’s comebacks are delivered with such impressive use of English that you’d swear he was Churchill in disguise. I recently wrote that Gary Oldman’s Churchill in The Darkest Hour had one of the best monologues I’d ever seen. Those writers must have been researching old films like Witness for the Prosecution because the parry between the barristers and even between Vole and his wife are impressively smooth. Like Miracle Whip. It’s the kind of smooth that comes from a team of writers with Masters in English Poetry and addictions to Earl Grey. That, or Agatha Christie.

Not so subtlety camouflaged by the smooth is a heap of casual 1950s misogyny. Sir Wilfred insists that whoever breaks the news of Vole’s arrest to his wife be prepared with smelling salts for her inevitable fainting spells, given that she is a woman – and a foreigner. Yeah, okay. Enter straight-backed Christine with are-you-serious eyebrows and cheekbones that could cut glass. Her emotional range is from 1-2 and she responds to the news of her husband’s arrest with a frank, “I told him this would happen.” Christine is obviously a fembot. She’s a sharp, practical woman who doesn’t mind being assaulted by a gang of lonely soldiers so long as her clothes emerge untorn. She’s the strongest character of them all and the men in the room have no idea what to do about it.

Witness for the Prosecution is a murder mystery dissected in court. The language is subtle and beautiful but it doesn’t drown you like some scripty old movies do. Yes, it’s a little dramatic, but if I were about to be hanged for a murder I didn’t commit, I’d probably be a little dramatic myself. The best part of the whole film is the grand reveal at the end, which comes with a narrated request NOT to spoil the ending. I wouldn’t peek at the Wikipedia page for this one. Witness for the Prosecution is funny and dubious, with a lot of mystery and a fair bit of chauvinism. It’s an engaging, quick story that I highly recommend at 8/10.

“You’ll talk about this movie alright, but you’ll never tell the ending to your friends.”