Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film #90: Witness for the Prosecution

Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, still remains one of the most utterly surprising and enthralling courtroom dramas ever made. Adapted from the Agatha Christie stage play by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus, the film stars a playful Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Roberts, a British barrister who, despite his ill health, is compelled to take on the case of a penniless drifter (Tyrone Power, in his final film appearance) who's accused of murdering a rich widow (Norma Varden). When the drifter ends up inheriting 80,000 pounds from the widow's estate, Scotland Yard comes knocking at his door, ready to detain him for the murder.

But Sir Wilfred remains convinced of the man's innocence, despite his lack of an airtight alibi (as such provided by the drifter's wife, played impeccably by Marlene Dietrich). Thus begins a series of twisty-turny red herrings that makes Witness for the Prosecution the sublime hunk of fun entertainment that it is (in one of the first examples of such, the newpaper ads implored the audience not to reveal the end of the movie to others). Believe me, you won't be able to predict what happens!

The remarkable art direction was provided by famed production designer Alexander Trauner, whose credits include Children of Paradise, The Apartment (for which he won an Oscar in 1960), Round Midnight, Luc Besson's Subway, and John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. Trauner worked diligently on the central courtroom set which was fitted with 60 removable Austrian oak panels and a sectioned floor, all of which could be rearranged as needed for camera movement. The film itself was nominated for Oscars in 1957 for Best Picture, Actor (Laughton), Supporting Actress (Elsa Lancester as Sir Wilfred's girl Friday, performed while she was Laughton's longtime wife), Sound and Film Editing. Witness for the Prosecution stands as one of the courtroom drama genre's most beloved entries--the best film Alfred Hitchcock never made.

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