21 November 2004 | Anansi00
If you've seen the movie, be sure to read Christie's story. If you've read the story, still see this movie.
Witness for the Prosecution is, as IMDb voters cann attest, a great movie. A clever, character-driven courtroom drama, it deserved the Academy Award nominations that it received in 1958, and it has justly endured to the present day. Starring the terrific talents of Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and particularly Marlene Dietrich, directed by Billy Wilder, and based on the superb short story by Agatha Christie, it is a combination has all of the very best ingredients, and delivers a nearly outstanding film.
The movie centers around Laughton's character, an aged, feisty, and very canny English barrister (lawyer) who is in poor health and headed toward retirement. The opening of the movie is entirely Laughton's show, as he portrays a curmudgeonly and endearing character. On his first day home from the hospital, he soon takes up the defense of Leonard Vole (Power) a man who is charged with murder and up against a barrage of circumstantial evidence. Power is convincing as the honest and somewhat naive defendant, in increasingly over his head. Soon, Dietrich makes her entrance as Vole's cool German femme fatal of a wife. After a few flashbacks to set up the story of the murder case, Laughton takes up Vole's case. What ensues is a well-written and well-directed courtroom drama, in which Laughton continues to shine, delivering a convincing performance peppered with humor. Soon, the story takes a series of dramatic twists, during which Power plays his part as the beleaguered defendant to the hilt and Dietrich uses the gifts that made her a legend. By the end, the audience has been treated to an excellent drama with sensational acting.
The result is a classic, but not an icon in the sense that Christie's short story, penned twenty years earlier, would become. While it may be the best-regarded of all Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express a possible exception), the movie does not seem to have the stature it ought to have. At the end of the movie, I did not feel the same as when I read the story, and not just because I knew all along how it would turn out. With such visible talent on all fronts, I took a long look at what it was, and what was missing. The answer: Christie.
The movie is good in its own right, but from the beginning misses the crucial aspect that the original story has: the mystery. Agatha Christie is the master of suspense, and throughout the story, that suspense, that anxiousness to know what will happen next, the eagerness to know where this next twist will lead, and the shock that comes at the very end, were what the story was all about. The direction the movie went, the legal thriller, substituted drama for mystery, and while the movie only added to the story, changing very little of what Christie wrote, the movie lost the grip that only she could create. Christie treated the courtroom proceedings (the centerpiece of the movie) with brevity, focusing on the intrigue surrounding the case. Also, the Hollywood ending overdoes it a little bit, and deprives the most important plot twist of some of its its emotional impact.
That said, however, the movie is still a classic. Fortunately, the heart of the story was still very strong, with a unique plot and rich characters, which were taken advantage of by Wilder and the cast, respectively. And, as it turns out, the movie is a good complement to the story. To those who have only seen the movie, the story should be read to truly appreciate the missing value of the mystery. To those who have read the story, the movie nails the characters (particularly Dietrich's Mrs. Vole). All in all, I give this movie a 9 out of 10, and would gladly see it again.