Maybe we have to accept the possibility that people aren’t good. They want to hurt you and they feed off it. It is their joy. You want to believe otherwise, you try to look for another reason for why things are but in this tragic world these days where morals are no longer needed and lies are as required as cruelty it is what it is. Anyway, several weeks ago I decided the time had come to finally watch the only Billy Wilder film I had never seen. It wasn’t that I’d been avoiding it. I had just long since decided that I liked the idea of there being one more film. As screwy as it sounds, it meant there were still possibilities, it meant there was still something to look forward to. But times have changed and on the off chance Fury Road actually happens any day now I figured there was no point in waiting any longer. That film, by the way, was THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, not one of the more characteristic Wilders but still pretty good even if I could tell that whatever personal touches he presumably brought to the piece were muted in favor of the spectacle of it all. Because of the true story being told it would almost have to be one of Wilder’s most hopeful films and maybe that’s why it feels like there’s a hole at the fadeout since empty optimism was never his strong suit. SPIRIT was actually the first of three films directed by Wilder released in 1957, followed by LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (never a favorite, but fighting over this doesn’t interest me right now) and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION which in many ways could almost be the opposite of THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. Compact instead of sprawling, black & white instead of color, no widescreen photography and a mere handful of sets instead of the epic tale of a flight across the Atlantic. It’s not hard to imagine which one the director would have been more at home making and even if much of the plot’s spine comes from Agatha Christie the character work feels like some of the best Wilder we ever got. There’s a snap to WITNESS, a flow to the dialogue in each scene that is almost musical. It’s a courtroom drama, no avoiding that, but within its myriad plot twists may very well be one of the most purely human of all of Wilder’s films, stripping away the expected cynicism until faced with the unvarnished, honest truth.
London barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just been released from the hospital following a heart attack, with loyal and forever annoying nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) in tow, determined to make sure that he does nothing to overexert himself. Resigned to not getting back to work, almost as soon as he arrives home Sir Wilfrid is confronted with the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of killing rich older widow Emily French (Norma Varden) who had taken a liking to him. After Vole convinces Sir Wilfrid of his innocence, the barrister meets Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) a cold woman under no delusions of Leonard’s character, but willing to provide them with an alibi of when he arrived home the night of the murder. But when revelations of her past come to light she is able to testify against Leonard as a witness for the prosecution, putting Sir Wilfrid’s careful plan to defend Vole in jeopardy.
The mid-50s have never been one of my favorite periods in Wilder’s career, I imagine partly because after the box office failure of ACE IN THE HOLE
he retreated from that darkness to somewhat safer projects. STALAG 17, SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH were based on acclaimed stage plays, all commercial properties to one degree or other. Whether or not it was by design, with his three 1957 releases it’s almost like he’s finding the way back to his own pure voice, gradually scaling things down from the epic CinemaScope sprawl of SPIRIT which was a prolonged, unhappy production to the big stars on location for LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON to the ultra-compact WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (based on the Agatha Christie stage play; adaptation by Larry Marcus, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz), shot on soundstages in Hollywood featuring a mere handful of sets and starring big names who by all accounts got along famously with the director. There’s a confidence felt in each scene as if everything about it is automatically clicking together and just as the film’s lead character is rediscovering the passion for his own work, Wilder is doing the same. Based on some of the films he made over the following decade he may have even realized that he never wanted to leave the confines of a soundstage again unless forced to, that all he requires are these actors speaking his dialogue and going at each other full throttle. And it does this without sacrificing the basics of the Christie narrative; in an interview excerpted on the Blu-ray Wilder talks about how the author was brilliant when it came to plot but lousy with characters and if you read the original 15-page story it doesn’t feel like anything more than a rough sketch. Very little dialogue is kept from the stage version as well; at one point in the Christie script for the play Vole mentions a job selling egg beaters which in the hands of Wilder is turned into a contraption he’s invented out of a Lubitsch film, just one small example of how the film was intent on transforming everything in the story. Even the character of Miss Plimsoll played by Elsa Lanchester is a new invention to go along with this subplot and it’s like Wilder mostly treated the source material as an outline (“Nothing was in the play,” he told Cameron Crowe, not far off from the truth) keeping the basic essentials and using those pieces to make the film that allowed him to say what he needed to.
The careful plotting builds to a twist which is a gimmick, no getting around that, but it’s still a good one. And the film never denies this, down to the booming voice as the end credits roll imploring us not to reveal the shocking conclusion to our friends, looking forward to Hitchcock’s ‘no one will be seated after the start of the film’ command for PSYCHO. But once those revelations are out of the way on repeat viewings, the film becomes more about the intricate character detail that goes into each scene instead of the plot, the drawn out testimony of Una O’Connor’s batty housekeeper becoming about her nitpicky behavior and everyone’s responses to that, the precarious physical state of Sir Wilfrid with his continued attempts to get at his cigars and brandy, the mechanics of his mind continually trying to figure out what’s going on, knowing that he has no choice but to see all this through to the end. As a courtroom drama it’s more a slice of cake than slice of life, to use the Hitchcock terminology, but Wilder keeps the focus always on the people, knowing that in the mechanics of the Christie mystery there’s logic to make everything connect together but he’s also interested in the human nature of it all which will eventually lead to answers that can never have anything to do with simple logic. The solution to the mystery isn’t just whodunit but who it turns out they really are.
With a first act that is almost one continuous scene broken up by a few flashbacks the stage roots are evident but it never drags for a second and as it moves into the courtroom section, the testimony plays as an excuse for elegant dialogue as much as the plot, as interested in the wit as making sure all the pieces of the plot connects. They all do, unless you really want to cry foul with the twist, and almost more than any other Wilder film the structure is tighter than ever. It’s also sprinkled with details that give it an almost instant comfort level, reminiscent of past Wilder films like a bit with a hat reminiscent of the script he wrote with Charles Brackett for NINOTCHKA and Leonard Vole’s questionable relationship with an older woman a further examination of elements in SUNSET BOULEVARD. Even with some production design trickery in the sets by Alexandre Trauner it’s not the most visually adventurous Wilder film but not only doesn’t that matter, it feels correct as if the institution of the British court needs to be presented that straightforward visually since it’s a world as confident in itself and its traditions as Sir Wilfrid is in his little monocle trick to catch people in their lies, the one way he knows to convince himself. The tightness of the direction may be almost too neat and tidy at times but when Laughton and Dietrich go at it, the very best moments feel like they’re going to burst out of that frame and that’s the only place where the passion ultimately needs to come from.
The accused Leonard Vole as played by Power is a scoundrel with no long term plans in life, another Walter Neff or Joe Gillis caught in the web that he’s created but Sir Wilfrid, a perfect role for Laughton, is also a stand in for the forever unsentimental Wilder himself, stressed out from those other films and finding his mojo again. Like Wilder, Sir Wilfrid demands structure in his courtroom approach, waiting until just the right time to bring out a theatrical bit that can win his case. Wilder fully understands these guys, before and after certain plot revelations, they make perfect sense to him. And they’re placed up against the total unknowability--I swear, I’m trying to avoid discussing certain plot revelations just as the film requested--of the character of Christine Vole as played by Dietrich (who was responsible for Wilder’s involvement in the project) and it’s a recurring Wilder theme through a good portion of his career, one of the key Wilder questions, extending all the way to the likes of FEDORA, that being Who Is This Woman? The WWII flashback to Leonard and Christine’s meet cute that includes brief confusion between a cigarette and stick of gum as Vole can’t take his eyes off her legs not only adds to her enigma it also serves to deliberately recall the character played by Dietrich in Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR
. It not only serves as another reference to one of his films, the two would work beautifully paired together in a double bill as undeniable reflections of each other.
Wilder also keeps things just polite enough that we need to squint to imagine what the production code isn’t letting us see in those flashbacks and whatever was really going on between Vole and Emily French as well as with his wife who to everyone else’s eyes is older, German (or simply a foreigner), essentially ‘the bitch’, not one to be trusted and Miss Plimsoll even declares, “Oh, she’s evil, that one,” after listening to her testimony for just a few minutes as if nothing was more obvious. Dietrich’s character is all about what we’re not seeing, or what we think we’re going to see, even during that WWII flashback and in her introduction when meeting Sir Wilfrid she’s presented as what the film, or the film’s world, apparently believes women of her age should be, buttoned up and sexless, all passion burned out. One line of dialogue to describe her early on is spoken in an incredulous manner then repeated near the very end (this is taken directly from the play, but the dialogue improved on here) with a sense of total clarity by the person saying it, or at least as understanding of her as will ever be possible. In this context, it means something more than simply good or evil. It’s humanity.
Maybe some of the revelations aren’t as much of a shock as they once were and it all feels a little like the in utero version of multiple climaxes from episodes of L.A. LAW or other David E. Kelley shows years later. The twists are part of the Christie gimmick but each time I watch it they gain resonance in their presumptions you make based all around truth and guilt and what that means. Either way, it works beautifully, from the simple elegance in how even basic dialogue that lays out information is compelling to listen to or Laughton’s banter with, well, just about everyone else in the film as well as the sumptuous black & white photography by Russell Harlan. And there’s resonance to the constant fretting over Sir Wilfrid’s health and the way he insists this will be his last case—amazing that Laughton was only around 58 here since he looks about 20 years older. You may be dying, the film says, and everything around you may be crumbling. But, it asks, are you going to sit down and die or keep fighting. And if you need a little booze to get through the day, maybe that’s for the best. It’s all going to end eventually but it matters how you live, how you behave towards certain people that counts and it helps when the people around you realize that as well, which the very last line of dialogue is proof of.
I’m still a little confused about how Tyrone Power, top-billed in his final completed role, is supposed to be English (at least, I’m assuming he is since he was in the RAF) without any trace of an accent. But his likably callow nature seems like an ideal fit for the character, building up to his pleading for his life in the courtroom. Power seems to play things totally on impulse as if he makes his mind up about something immediately then never thinks about it again for an instant and this becomes the key to his performance. That becomes an ideal match up against Charles Laughton who clearly has the wheels turning in his head through every word he utters, fiddling with his monocle and occasionally enraged when things aren’t what they seem. Whether he zeros in on questioning a witness or simply wrapping his mouth around the word ‘cocoa’ or not even saying a damn thing there’s not a note he plays which feels wrong, every gesture has the right sort of elegance. Marlene Dietrich of course has the most difficult role, playing a woman who reveals nothing until she’s forced to and she makes the film all about her almost in retrospect. There’s subtle comic timing during the flashback but there’s also the famous explosion of “DAMN YOU!” during her climactic testimony and every single beat of her onscreen is fascinating. There’s also Elsa Lanchester (of course, she & Laughton were married in real life) who turns her over the top comic relief into a loyal accomplice as the case goes on and Norma Varden as the murdered Emily French, also not directly portrayed in the stage version, along with the likes of Una O’Connor, John Williams, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher and others who bring just the right dry humor to the dialogue, turning even tiny little line readings from each of them into the sort of thing you unexpectedly look forward to on multiple viewings.
Beginning with his next film, SOME LIKE IT HOT, Billy Wilder collaborated on his screenplays with I.A.L. Diamond (they first worked together on LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, then Diamond out WITNESS—he’s credited on the Danny Kaye vehicle MERRY ANDREW around this period) which of course led to the high point of the all-holy THE APARTMENT
. A few lower points came in the years that followed like IRMA LA DOUCE and THE FORTUNE COOKIE
as well as others which vary in quality but they also spend a great deal of time in their principle locations, just like this one. It’s hard not to wish that Wilder could have loosened up by a certain point (AVANTI!
do a little, not that it helped the receptions that those films got) but let’s stick with this film for now. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION plays so effortlessly that it’s probably been underrated over the years, looked at as just a stage adaptation that came between Marilyn Monroe vehicles. But mixed in with its incisive storytelling is a look at a cynical world, one where automatic innocence may be presumed while at the same time doubting the very concept of goodness. That’s part of why it works so well in the end—unlike the triumph of Lindbergh landing in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS the sliver of optimism found in human nature comes from just about the last place you’d expect. So maybe we have to accept the possibility that something like it can be found again in this world. I’m not sure I totally believe in that yet but I’m trying.