Charles Laughton is today's Morgan Freeman. He was good in supporting roles or leads, as comic relief or deadly serious, and he made every movie he was in better. I've enjoyed catching up with some of his roles while writing this column for more than five years (!), and "Witness for the Prosecution" features one of his most delicious performances.
First, a word about film credits. Tyrone Power was the top-billed actor and the face on most of the posters, with Marlene Dietrich a close second. Both give nice turns in "Witness," but it's clear from watching even five minutes of the movie that they're the supporting characters. The story is focused entirely through Laughton, playing ailing British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, defending an acccused murderer in the trial of his long and storied career.
Power plays Leonard Vole, the accused, a seemingly hapless fellow and natural charmer with the ladies. It turns out (spoilers ahead) that he actually did commit the murder he's accused of, and relied on the skilled thespian powers of his German war wife, Christine (Dietrich), to construct an elaborate ruse to get him off. It was deliberately playing against type for Power, who was known mostly for heroic swashbuckling roles such as Zorro.
"Witness" was also his final film -- Power succumbed to a sudden heart attack at the tender of age 45, literally with a sword in his hand while filming his next big production.
Dietrich, still a stunner at age 57, continued to perform for many more years, including a live stage show in which she flaunted a "nearly nude" sheer dress in her 70s. She was also laid low during a performance, falling off the stage during a show in Australia and suffering a seriously broken leg. She endured until age 90, alcoholic and largely bedridden.
So why was Laughton, certainly no small fry as a movie star himself, relegated to third billing despite carrying the entire movie? Who really knows, as showbiz has rarely made a lot of sense. Maybe the advertising boys preferred the winsome couple over the famously frog-faced Laughton.
Laughton certainly garnered all the meaningful attention, earning an Academy Award nomination (the third of his esteemed career) as well as a BAFTA nod. The film also got Oscar noms for best picture, best director (Billy Wilder), editing and sound recording. Neither Power or Dietrich were recognized, though strangely Elsa Lanchester was for her comic relief role as Robarts' nagging nurse.
Based on a short story (later turned into a play) by Agatha Christie, "Witness for the Prosecution" wears the clothes of a whodunit while existing more as a character study of its leading trio. Wilder and Harry Kurnitz adapted the story for the screen, and while the last few minutes are deliberately shocking, the actors carry the narrative rather than the other way around.
Probably three-quarters of the picture takes place inside a courtroom, in the British version of the familiar courtroom drama genre. It's much more stuffy and genteel than American courtroom films, which tend to have a lot of big emotions and sweaty stand-offs.
Christine was thought by Robarts to provide the key alibi for her husband, who dilly-dallied with an older heiress in hopes that she would loan him money to develop his eggbeater invention. She turned up with her head bashed in, and the woman's crotchety maid points the crooked finger of blame at Vole. Things aren't helped when it's revealed that the victim changed her will to make him the beneficiary of an £80,000 inheritance -- about $2 million in today's dollars.
Robarts is vexed when Christine is instead called as a witness for the prosecution, and proceeds to throw Leonard under the bus, saying he came home with blood on his sleeves and at 10:10 p.m., not the 9:26 p.m. he swore to. But then Robarts receives some letters from a mystery woman that claim the whole thing was a plot to get rid of the husband she'd grown tired of.
I won't reveal the very end, but suffice it to say that the brilliant barrister finds out that he's had the wool pulled over his eyes.
Robarts has just returned from a long convalescence, with a strict nurse in tow and instructions not to try any more criminal cases. Of course, he gives in to the temptation of a juicy murder case -- along with cigars and brandy snuck into his thermos full of cocoa.
Blowsy, charismatic and indulgent, Robarts can't leave behind the life of outfoxing his opponents he's grown to love so much. There's even a funny little trick he does of using his monocle to shine a reflected light in a person's face to find out if they're lying. Turns out it isn't so reliable, as Vole passed with flying colors.
"Witness for the Prosecution" is good old-fashioned filmmaking -- a thriller-cum-drama where all the real action is confined to the courtroom. It's there Robarts, and Laughton, ply their considerable skills with reptilian panache.