Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) has recently suffered a health scare, and in his recuperation from a heart attack he has been ordered to rest as much as possible, eat and drink responsibly, give up smoking those cigars and take his medication as the doctors see fit. To this end he now has a nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), on hand to look after him, and indeed do much of the ordering about, so when he returns to his offices which happen to double as his London home, the idea of him taking on any but the least taxing cases is out of the question. Just as he is settling down and missing his brandy and cigars, a solicitor (Henry Daniell) arrives with a companion in tow...
Said companion being Leonard Vole, essayed by the top-billed Tyrone Power who was very fond of this film, or at least he was for a few months as he would pass away while making his next work, ironically of a heart attack which his co-star was suffering from in character. Thus fans of Power have always treasured his endeavours here as proof he was more than just a handsome face, though he still tends to be dismissed even today as a matinee idol who offered up a performance a little out of his range in Witness for the Prosecution. In truth, though he looked like a winner, as with his other great role Nightmare Alley, he could make for a very effective loser in the right role.
Not that he had much of a chance to demonstrate how far he could get into character, and it was telling director Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the adaptation of Agatha Christie's hit play, opted to concentrate on Laughton as the lead, a gamble that paid off as many audiences found him at his most loveable in this. He may not have been so loveable in real life, but all accounts painted him as a darling when shooting here, so there was obviously something that he was responding to, and it was one of his most enjoyable showcases in a career littered with them. Acting opposite his wife Lanchester you had the impression their home life was not a whole lot different from the screen one.
The third in the trio of big stars stretching their talents was Marlene Dietrich, possibly Wilder's favourite actress and she always had nice things to say about him, too, despite Wilder's reputation as something of a perfectionist trampling over his cast and collaborator's feelings being an oft-described set of anecdotes about the man. It was likely his shared history with Dietrich, as they were both survivors of the Nazi regime in Germany, that drew him to her, someone who made something of herself in exile much has he had, and with a showbiz connection to boot. Here she poured her heart and soul into a part that demanded she play as icily as possible, ostensibly the villain though you can never be sure until the film had arrived at its final scene who was doing what to whom.
Although Witness for the Prosecution was set in London, and had plenty of Brits filling out the supporting cast, there was something decidedly touristy about the manner if unfolded, treating the British justice system as something worth going to see in the public gallery if you were a holidaymaker seeking a thrill at the quaint traditions of the courts there. Thanks to Christie, it had enough of an authentic feel for the details of a murder trial to get away with papering over some cracks that only became apparent after the end credits had rolled (for instance, the final shock need never have happened as one character had not committed the crime they were destined to be prosecuted for). Christie didn't mind; famously unimpressed with screen versions of her writings, she actually enjoyed this one, and as a blockbuster of its day it certainly did no harm to her profile, as the same could be said for everyone else involved. If it was far too cute to convince as a thriller, in this incarnation anyway, it was a jolly good show for all that. Music by Matty Malneck.
[Those multiple extras on the handsome Eureka Blu-ray edition in full:
1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
Uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack
Optional English SDH subtitles
New and exclusive feature length audio commentary by critic Kat Ellinger
Monocle and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution
A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
Archival footage of Billy Wilder discussing Witness for the Prosecution with director Volker Schlöndorff
A collector's booklet featuring new essays by film scholar Henry Miller and critic Philip Kemp; a letter from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder; and rare archival imagery