Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Back in the day, before people knew how to make proper motion pictures, there were tons of people who made what were essentially staged plays. Sure, they might have been filmed it in a studio in far more extravagant sets, but the truth was that films weren’t doing much more than what the stage had already refined over centuries.

Debates can be made over whether or not this is a bad thing, whether film should do what film does best, and nothing else, or if there is a merit to crafting films after the nature of plays. The more immediate problem is avoiding stagnation and stiffness that can be had in taking a play and just shooting it with a camera. Sadly, Witness for the Prosecution ends up waning in this stagnation.

The story is a courtroom drama, which is, of course, about a man on trial for murder, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). But, as usual, the film isn’t about him, but his stogy old lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) who is cantankerous and in bad health. He decides to take on this one last case.  What throws a wrench into the whole case is Leonard’s wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who seems to have it out for her husband.

Between all the tedious scenes of serious lawyer talk, director and screenwriter Billy Wilder tries to insert all this biting dialogue between Wilfrid and his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). It’s an amusing enough gag that runs throughout the film, but it demonstrates the core problem of Wilder’s writing, he’s more interested in inducing a conversation than in crafting a coherent and consistent character.

This is especially clear in the ending, which tries to throw the audience for a preposterous curveball. The reason why it doesn’t work is that it is not true to the characters it involves. Sure, maybe it’s all about how its staged, but the moment is written less about the characters and more about the dialogue and action involved in the scene.

At least this gives the audience a glimmer of something interesting going on here. Everything else feels so forced, stilted, staged and uncompelling. You could accuse it of being a play, but in a play, the actors would have so much more space to work with. Instead, everything is claustrophobic, narrow and stilted. To say it is like watching still life is to assume still life is as boring as this.

Therefore, the audience is left like Wildfrid during the court scene, shoving pills around on the desk, waiting for the hours to roll by, waiting for that one instance of interested, that one gap, the one whole. For some, maybe that final moment was enough to make the film compelling, but it’s so poorly handled that it fails to make much more that came before it that interesting.

Part of this may simply the critic’s prejudice against the stilted nature of play adaptations. This is a film. Use the tools available to make something worth of the medium. Tracking shots, compelling framing, powerful editing, compelling perspectives. Admittedly, some of this is present, but it’s not nearly in the quantity or volume needed to make Witness for the Prosecution a crime worth seeing.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing