Witness to the Prosecution

So what does Night of the Hunter, Sunset Blvd., Bride of Frankenstein, The Blue Angel, and The Mark of the Zorro have in common? Do you give up? Look at the title dummy… Charles Laughton directed Night of the Hunter and starred in Witness as Sir Wilfred. Billy Wilder directed. Elsa Lanchester is the Bride and is a dowdy nurse in this film. Marlene Dietrich’s legs were made famous in The Blue Angel, one of her first films and in one of her last they make a very famous cameo. Tyrone Power known as a swashbuckling hero in The Mark of Zorro, Jesse James and several other pirate and period films plays on his hero stereotype here. Do you get it now?

Charles Laughton was made for this role. He commands eyes and respect from the first time you see him in a chauffeured car with a heavy blanket on. He is gruff, bombastic and totally awesome all of the way through. He plays a lawyer who after suffering a heart attack and what seems like a lengthy hospital stay, returns to his office but forced to lug around a nurse who prods him to do her bidding. The witty banter between them can only come from a lengthy friendship (or marriage…) between the two actors. In fact Elsa Lanchester may be the unsung hero of this film. Her prudishness is so endearing it is cute. Anyway Sir Wilfred (Charles Laughton if you already forgot) is forced by his health to not take criminal cases, but of course he disobeys right away. Striking a deal with his nurse and doctor he chooses to take on the case of Leonard Vole, a seemingly sweet man accused of murdering a woman he saw frequently. He claims that the relationship was strictly platonic, but there are hints that the woman may have had feelings for him. In fact he helped revise her will so that she would leave him with 80,000 pounds. He professes his innocence saying he is a devoted husband who never wanted anything more than a couple of hundred from her in order to fund his inventions. Through several primitive tests (watching Sir Wilfred testing Leonard is so great. I wish I could do that to every grumpy customer I encounter), Wilfred believes he is innocent and takes his case. The only obstacle is his wife. She seems to have invented the term ice queen. No doubt she is played expertly by Marlene Dietrich. Once an actress, Leonard and Christine met in occupied Germany and it seems on the surface that he used him for a safe visa to England. Everyone is apprehensive of her, but Leonard seems to have total faith in her. What happens I cannot reveal because that will be going against the vow I took during the credits…

Subtlety in the guise of outrageous is the genius behind Billy Wilder. Gloria Swanson’s performance in Sunset Blvd. was so incredibly over the top that you had to admire how spot on it was. The same here goes for Charles Laughton. I was surprised that at one point there was no physical scene chewing since he did it so often with his performance. But the only way that character could have commanded such respect in the courtroom and have the impact be effective when he was wrong is for him to play it up. He needs to believe in this man in order to truly get burned at the end. What is genius about the character is that he has a sinking suspicion but he does not know exactly what it could be. Where is the banana peel? The same goes for Marlene Dietrich’s performance. As  an audience we have to believe that she is an ice queen, that she does not feel anything for her husband when quite the opposite is true. In order for us to go on the ride and believe the story being told we have to trust in Sir Wilfred’s judgement, Christine’s adulterous ways, and Leonard’s innocence. If you believe these three things, then you will be surprised by the last act… which is a good thing.

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