The ability to incorporate a good twist in film seems to be a dying art. The genuine element of surprise has been replaced by the need to spell out every little detail from the very beginning. Sure audiences have become savvier, not to mention the rise of social media has made spoiling a film as easy as hitting a cell phone button, but the focus of storytelling has changed. Nowadays either the audiences sees the twist coming from a mile away, or the reveals are so ludicrously out of left field that the film never can figure out how to best sell it. This is not to say that cinema has not seen its fair share of crazy twists in the past, it is just that many of the great films figured out how to seamlessly execute them in a way that ultimately enhanced the film.
A perfect example of this is Billy Wilder’s brilliant courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution, a film that blindsides its audience multiple times and still feels rewarding. Based on a short story by Agatha Christie, the film focuses on a man, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who is on trial for a murder that all evidence points to him committing. A happily married man, Leonard strikes up a close friendship with a wealthy older widow, Emily French (Norma Varden), who is clearly enchanted by his charm. When Emily is found dead Leonard becomes the prime suspect. It also does not help Leonardo’s case that Emily had her will changed to ensure he would receive a sizeable amount of her fortune.
The case appears to be clear cut on the surface to everyone including defense lawyer Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton). However, Robarts agrees to take Leonard’s case after being convinced during a face to face meeting that he is indeed innocent. While everyone seems to focus on Leonard, Robarts has his suspicions about the role Leonard’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) plays in all of this. In a conversation with Robarts, Christine coldly admits to not loving Leonard and actually being legally married to another man. Despite this, Christine assures Robarts that she can provide the alibi that might save Leonard. Yet as the trial begins, Robarts is shocked to find out that Christine has turned the tables and become the key witness for the prosecution.
To say anything more regarding the plot would be a disservice to the film. While Wilder’s film plays like a rather straightforward court procedural, the plot pulls the rug out from under the viewer on several occasions. On paper some of these surprises may seem outlandish, but Wilder manages to pull it off in a rather exquisite fashion thanks in part to the performances in the film. Marlene Dietrich is wonderful as the cool and calculating Christine. She is the woman you love to hate, even when you are not quite sure what it is about her that bothers you so much. She serves as the perfect counterpart to Tyrone Power’s meek and seemingly good natured Leonard. Power does a solid job of portraying a man who is publicly humiliated by his wife’s deceit.
The glue that cements both of those performances together though is great work of Charles Laughton as Robarts. Nicknamed “The Fox” by some, Robarts is relentless when it comes to sniffing out the truth, even if it means putting his already diminishing health at stake. He is the type of man who frequently challenges authority figures, most notably his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), in the pursuit of justice. It is this mixture of presumptuous zeal and genuine concern for those he represents that makes Robarts an engaging, and ultimately flawed, man of the law. Many of the surprises in the film would not have worked so well had the audience not paid so much attention to Robarts.
Similar to other films that are among Wilder’s best, Witness for the Prosecution is constructed in a manner that is far smarter than it appears upon first glance. The script and performances appear deceptively simple, but upon further examination the subtle nuances and complexities become apparent. Witness for the Prosecution will satisfy both fans of courtroom dramas and Wilder enthusiasts. It is the type of film that will make you long for the days when films offered up great a twist in a way that felt natural and thrilling all at the same time.