‘Witness for Prosecution’ is a 1957 courtroom drama film by Billy Wilder, adapted from Agatha Christie’s short story by the same name. It features Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich.
The film deals with the trial of a man accused of murdering his rich elderly friend, who had made him the beneficiary of her will. His wife is the only person, who can provide a solid alibi, but she does something unexpected and unprecedented; she appears against her husband, as a witness for the prosecution. However, this is just the beginning of a series of a typical Agatha Christie twists and surprises, brought to life in this remarkable film.
Marlene Dietrich as the formidable and dignified wife of the accused, with a steely determination and a murky past, does justice to Agatha Christie’s Mrs Vole. Her natural pronounced German accent also ameliorates her performance, since Mrs. Vole was originally from Germany.
Charles Laughton as the valetudinarian, legendary barrister, Sir Wilfred, with a characteristic humour and strong sense of integrity, defies superlatives. Also worth mentioning is Elsa Manchester, Laughton’s actual wife, who plays Sir Wilfred’s motherly finicky nurse, Miss Plimsoll in this film and received a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Trust, betrayal and integrity, are the main themes of the film. Love, on the other hand, is a secondary theme, which explores the nature of the relationship between Mrs. and Mr. Vole. Another theme is the beautiful conflict that rages inside Sir Wilfred, which culminates into the prophetic statement, “It is not the jury’s verdict I am troubled about; it is my own.” The exchanges between Sir Wilfred and Miss Plimsoll are extremely comical and entertaining, and provide a relief from the tense plot of the film.
A very important aspect of the film is its profuse search for the truth and upholding what is “morally right”, irrespective of the people and circumstances.
The dialogues of the film are extremely quotable and a source of both entertainment and substance, whether it be Sir Wilfred’s courtroom monologue, his personal musings or Mrs. Vole’s calm, graceful and sometimes passionate delivery . As can be gauged from the fact that the film is based on a work of Agatha Christie’s, the ending is completely unexpected, and has a moral and emotional impact. It can also be seen as an experiment with or satire on mankind in general.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, for best actor (Charles Laughton), best supporting actress (Elsa Manchester), best picture, best film editing and best sound. Laughton was also nominated for a BAFTA award.
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