Starring: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich
Director: Billy Wilder
Running Time: 116 mins
Witness For The Prosecution is an American film about an experienced but ailing barrister who decides to take on the role of lawyer for the defence in a hot murder trial at the Old Bailey.
Given that this is based on an Agatha Christie story, you can expect it to be full of surprises from start to finish. Not only does that come to fruition, however, as with a series of excellent central performances, strong direction and a brilliantly adapted screenplay, Witness For The Prosecution is a thoroughly engrossing, entertaining and unpredictable courtroom drama.
But above all, it’s the story that really makes this film. Although it may seem like it’s not really moving anywhere in its opening act, the overall plot arc is so fascinating that you’ll still want to learn every possible detail right from the beginning.
That’s why I suggest that you make sure you’re really concentrating when you watch this film. It’s not a mind-bending sort of drama, but its fiercely detailed and unpredictable screenplay means that you need to know what’s going on and what’s changing at every moment, whilst better concentration also makes the topsy-turvy case all the more exciting to watch.
Now, there’s very little I can say about the events of the main plot without spoilers, but suffice to say that this is right up there in terms of thrilling courtroom dramas with the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men, so if you’re a fan of the genre, or just someone who loves a riveting read, then Witness For The Prosecution is definitely for you.
Of course, it’s not all about the murder case. Whilst the countless surprises in the courtroom are the central focus of the film, the excellent screenplay features a whole host of brilliant lead characters that add even more life to proceedings.
At the centre of it all is the experienced barrister played by Charles Laughton. Apart from the fact that Laughton plays him with such gusto, the character is particularly memorable simply because he’s so cool. An absolute genius when it comes deciphering a difficult case, but also a sharp-witted and funny man who doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind to anybody, whether they’re on his side or not.
If it weren’t for him, the film would have felt quite a bit drier, as if it were a simply bog-standard courtroom drama, but thanks to Laughton’s performance and Billy Wilder’s screenplay, he’s an absolute joy to watch throughout.
Alongside Laughton are Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. Power plays the man accused of murder, and does a great job at getting you as much on his side as possible, making it all the more fun to support the barrister as he attempts to defend the accused in what seems like an open-and-shut case. Meanwhile, Dietrich plays the accused man’s stern German wife. Although she may not thrill in the opening stages, Dietrich’s subtly unnerving performance makes her character’s hugely unpredictable arc all the more convincing and exciting.
Finally, we come to the direction. Billy Wilder always knows how to make any genre effortlessly riveting, but it’s even better when he works his magic on the courtroom. Although featuring a few flashbacks, this film plays out almost entirely in two locations, the barrister’s office and the Old Bailey, both of which don’t always sound like the sort of places for a truly engrossing and topsy-turvy thriller.
However, Wilder pulls it off, and makes for a properly entertaining watch from start to finish even when the story doesn’t seem to be moving at the most rapid pace. With excellent directing mixed with fine editing particularly in the courtroom sequences, this film is always on edge, keeping its hugely unpredictable plot nail-biting right up to the last, and that’s why I’m giving Witness For The Prosecution an 8.1 overall.