#77: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

When and how did I watch this?

November 24th, 2016, on Amazon Instant Video.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I saw that Marlene Dietrich was cast in it. This is apparently the third (and last) of her films on this list, unless I’m mistaken.

What do I know about it now?

Although Dietrich and Tyrone Powers are the two front billings on this film, it was Charles Laughton that stole it for me. Laughton plays Wilfrid Robarts, a no-nonsense lawyer (or barrister) who comes to the aid of a seemingly innocent and desperate Mr. Vole (Powers) on the brink of being arrested for suspicion of murder.  All evidence points to his conviction, but Wilfrid cleverly contrives a defense that the jurors find overwhelmingly convincing.  In the midst of all this, Wilfrid is in ill health (apparently self-inflicted), but plays the system and works around the treatment, even sneaking brandy into the courtroom and taking on a murder trial despite warnings against it. Wilfrid is lovable from start to finish, and appears to be one step ahead of everyone else, but the crafty Mr. and Mrs. Vole get their money’s worth in the end.  I’ll save revealing this portion of the plot, for it might be one of the finest twists in all of cinema (at least, from what I’ve seen) and should be experienced for yourself. The screenplay is tremendous and compelling; every character is colorful, and every detail is terribly important. Even though the viewer is fooled in the end and the plot itself appeals to the aware and intelligent, it never condescends and provides satisfying entertainment for all.  I love it.

What are some themes in the film?

British law, oath and deception, perseverance (or stubbornness)

Did this affect me personally?

Yes. As already mentioned, Wilfrid Robarts is an incredibly memorable character. He delivers a series of lines that require hearing and viewing for yourself to get the full effect during the latter portion of the court case, including just before the verdict is delivered.

Why is this ranked #77?

Films like this could easily escape the attention of modern viewers, so this is sort of mysterious.  Apparently, there’s nothing like a good courtroom movie.  Billy Wilder is a favorite for sure, and this one doesn’t disappoint.  Likewise, Dietrich is well-known and very strong in her role, but is overshadowed by the two male leads.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She was busy watching the Gilmore Girls redux.

Would I watch it again?

Yes.  This might even be worth owning.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Oh yes.  You probably haven’t seen it, either.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Easily.  The story throttles you, pulls you back, and has you holding your breath throughout, not to mention delivering a stunning conclusion.  Each syllable in the film is spoken with utmost clarity and weight — typically I turn the captions on in case I miss something, but it was unnecessary for this masterpiece. The three leads are all brilliant. I was stunned to find out that this did NOT win Best Picture, but later discovered it had to compete with 12 Angry Men (#5 on my list) and the now seemingly overrated winner The Bridge on the River Kwai

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