Released in 1957, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is an exceptional courtroom drama based on the play by Agatha Christie. Tyrone Power is the man accused of murder, Charles Laughton is the Barrister trying to get him off and Marlene Dietrich is the wife or may or may not want her husband to swing from the gallows. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, which hits all the right notes from what you want from this type of film.
Filled with old Hollywood style, Witness For The Prosecution impresses on all fronts. The twists and turns of Christie’s plot will keep you entertained, while the A-list cast deliver in a way that you just don’t see anymore. Tyrone Power (in his last screen role) keeps his defendant on the right side of audience sympathies and Charles Laughton chews the scenery with gusto as the charismatic barrister who is trying to free himself of the watchful eye of his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Dietrich’s character plays-up post war paranoia as the former German showgirl living in London with her accused husband. There’s a skill in making a courtroom drama so that it doesn’t feel stagey, and Wilder knows how to deliver the drama and make it feel open. He’s helped by the cast’s great performances – you’re drawn into their characters whether they’re within the courtroom or outside it.
Billy Wilder is a master of tone and Witness for the Prosecution manages to juggle plenty of humour (the interplay between Laughton and Lanchester in particular) along with the courtroom theatrics to make a real crowdpleaser of a film which was a huge success when it was released, scoring an imressive six Academy Award nominations. The word on the street is that Ben Affleck is going to mount a remake as a director-star, but he’ll have to work hard to top the sterling work that Wilder and company did here. Courtroom dramas have pretty much been relegated to the small screen and Affleck would have to work hard to make it feel as cinematic as Wilder’s film.