They got me. They really did. I probably was about halfway through "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) when I sat back confidently, sure that I knew all the answers. Wrong.
I'm writing this on May 5, Tyrone Power's date of birth and have already spent the morning putting together a general Ty Power post on my own blog, re-reading Jeanine Basinger's chapter on Power in her 2007 book "The Star Machine," and only just now watched "Witness for the Prosecution."
It airs today at 3:45 PM EST on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), one of four titles featuring Power on his birthday. If you're reading this at work and my alert is late, I apologize, though if you've never seen "Witness for the Prosecution," or even if you have, it is still in-print and a pretty affordable title over at Amazon.com. I should know, I just bought mine.
Directed by Billy Wilder, "Witness for the Prosecution" is based on a play by mystery master Agatha Christie. Besides Wilder's nomination for Best Director, "Witness for the Prosecution" was nominated for five additional Oscars, including Best Picture, which ultimately went to "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), and Charles Laughton for Best Actor. Despite the heavy number of nominations, "Witness for the Prosecution" would leave the 1958 Academy Awards empty-handed.
As I think my opening makes clear I'd never had the pleasure of viewing this title before. "Witness for the Prosecution" had always seemed like a somewhat bland title to me, thus I avoided it. Today I spent $2.99 to rent a download of it through Amazon.com, and still spent another 12 bucks to have it for my own collection afterwards.
I took my medicine and I liked it. But part of why I do this is to be able to write about titles like "Witness for the Prosecution" with no outside influence. Here goes.
Despite it airing for Power's birthday, "Witness for the Prosecution" is really a showcase for an aging Charles Laughton, who plays respected lawyer Sir Wilfrid Roberts. Laughton, who I wrote about in this space recently when discussing "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935), once again shines comedically, though this time it's as a crusty older man recovering from a heart attack.
Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, plays the part of his tormenting nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who is actually quite sweet, but bugs Sir Wilfrid to no end with her demands of rest and prohibition of smoking and drinking. Despite some of the nastiness Sir Wilfrid spits in Miss Plimsoll's direction you get the general impression that he's playing with her from the start and that this is a mutually rewarding give and take relationship.
It's during one of their earliest, and most strenuous, disagreements that Mayhew the solicitor (Henry Daniell) arrives with Tyrone Power in tow. Sir Wilfrid stresses he can't handle any big cases, but Mayhew insists that Power's Leonard Vole is about to be implicated in a "serious criminal matter"--to which Vole flashes his teeth from the shadows, a mischievous smile that gives us our first glimpse of his charmer's personality.
Sir Wilfrid takes the men to his chambers on the pretense of hearing about the case, but in reality just to enjoy a cigar away from Miss Plimsoll's prying eyes. However as the story is told, Sir Wilfrid cannot help but to ask Mayhew and Vole all the right questions and become intrigued himself through the conversation. He suggests Mayhew get Brogan-Moore (John Williams), by all accounts a very capable lawyer himself, to the meeting right away and recommends him for the Vole case.
A 56-year old woman, Mrs. French (Norma Varden), has been murdered. Vole had previously made friends with her and had innocently begun visiting her a couple of times per week. Mrs. French had money and Vole did not. Vole wasn't even working at the time, but in previous occupations had been a mechanic, worked the toy section of a department store and tested electric blankets. Currently he touts himself as the inventor of a very special egg-beater.
Furthermore, Vole had been with the victim on the night of her murder. He has a fresh cut on his hand that he claims came
when slicing something with a knife. His alibi is his wife, whom he says will testify that he was home prior to the murder that night and that she saw him cut himself at home.
Just prior to the arrival of the Chief Inspector (Philip Tonge), Vole is informed that Mrs. French had recently changed her will to leave 80,000 pounds to Vole. At first Vole is thrilled to hear he's inherited the money, but it quickly sets in that this information is going to hurt his chances at innocence. As he's put under arrest he recalls that he should be fine though, as his case hinges on his wife simply telling the truth.
Christine Vole is played by Marlene Dietrich. And she's tough. As Vole is escorted from Sir Wilfrid's premises in custody, Sir Wilfrid is still convinced he'll let Brogan-Moore handle the case. But Dietrich enters "Witness for the Prosecution" with a challenge, remarking that she's heard Sir Wilfrid is the champion of the hopeless cause--but "is this cause too hopeless?"
As you might imagine from Sir Wilfrid's personality he puts Miss Plimsoll's demands for rest on hold again to hear what Mrs. Vole has to say. Dietrich takes over the room, foiling one of Sir Wilfrid's ploys at distraction, but adding intrigue and raising doubt by her hesitation regarding Mrs. French's will.
And that's all pretty much the set-up and the introduction to the characters. From there we actually have to get to court yet where the better part of "Witness for the Prosecution" plays out.
Laughton is a delight as Sir Wilfrid, coloring his crankiness with humor throughout, even in the courtroom. Sir Wilfrid is a timeless character that a skilled actor would play much the same today. Both Dietrich and Power have their biggest scenes on the stand, with both screaming to the point of exasperation and exiting with spirits broken. Since I still have the Basinger title handy, her commentary on the casting should be noted, though I'll leave out text which may give too much away:
"Since the story is about a struggle of three equal egos, three big names were required. Power's role is the least of the three (although key). ...The pivot point of the trial, the barrister played by Laughton, also has to be strong enough to anchor the middle between Power and Dietrich. Her role as the clever minx who delivers all the real surprises <i>has</i> to be a
star--even an icon, which she is--because the audience has to buy the fact that she could have called the shots all the way without Laughton knowing. With a lesser name in any of the three main roles, the audience would have felt cheated, or might have caught on' (175).
While I disagree about Power's role being least, I think he's on at least equal footing with Dietrich here, I think there's no denying that Laughton is the lead. While Power and Dietrich drive the action, Laughton is the viewer's perspective, and as if on cue you find yourself thinking along with him.
Despite being considerably younger than his two co-stars, "Witness for the Prosection" would in fact be Tyrone Power's final completed film prior to his death at age 44 in late 1958. It does appear that age has crept up on him a little by this point, though that may just be due to Dietrich who, in her mid-50's when this was made, looks much better than her birth certificate says she should. In fact, the Voles appear to be about the same age, even if there was a reference to Christine being older than Leonard at one point.
Power would next play the lead in "Solomon and Sheba" (1959), but he suffered the heart attack which took his life while dueling on film with co-star George Sanders. His scenes would be trimmed from the movie and Yul Brynner would play Solomon instead.
Featured collectibles: We start at the top right with a Tyrone Power Arcade Card from about 1940. Postcard sized, from the U.S.
Charles Laughton is shown on a trading card from the mid-1930’s issued out of Holland with Shirley’s Gum. Oddly sized, the larger than normal card measures approximately 1-9/16” X 2-13/16.”
The Marlene Dietrich item is actually a 7” X 8-7/8” game board, one of 8 such larger sized boards contained in the Movie-Land Keeno game (which also came with smaller playing cards featuring the stars). The Movie-Land Keeno game is copyrighted 1929, but the Dietrich actually comes from the later of two different game sets I’ve seen, dating to the early 1930’s.
Elsa Lanchester is card #29 from a 50 piece tobacco card set titled “Actors Natural & Character Studies” issued out of England by Ogden’s in 1938.
Below, Ty Power is shown one more time, here on a Dixie Premium from the 1941 collection. The popular and colorful Dixie Premiums were received in exchange for a dozen Dixie Cup Lids, adding rarity to the equation as well.
Sources: Basinger, Jeanine. The Star Machine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
- Tyrone Power on the IMDb
- Today in 1914 - Birth of Tyrone Power
- "Witness for the Prosecution" on Amazon