Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Directed by Billy Wilder
January 30-February 1 at MoMA, part of its Auteurist History of Cinema
The most memorable of Billy Wilder's male protagonists often find their appetite for scandal made untenable by an inconvenient aptitude for ordinariness; very typically, only one or two naïve thoughts or scruples stand in the way of their pulling off an act of merciless self-aggrandizement. Walter Neff, ace insurance salesman, sold himself too well on the belief that he was impervious to the perfidy of a bitter housewife whose mariticide he abetted; Chuck Tatum, ace reporter, couldn't stomach his own success after it necessitated the death of a mountain-trapped, Indian-trinket hunter; Richard Sherman, ace paperback publisher, ultimately realized the proverbial thin ice upon which he was cavorting with a much younger female neighbor in the hopes of gauging the extent of his middle-aged desirability to himself. They're all basically good guys—a little excitable when they get an idea in their heads, maybe, but ultimately conscientious and trusting in ways that don't exactly jibe with the self-centered wickedness to which they aspire.
Wilder's faculty with such characters is what makes Witness for the Prosecution such a menacing little puzzle. Concerning gullible American (and amateur inventor) Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who's accused of murdering a well-to-do British widow for her nest egg, the Agatha Christie-penned plot is precisely the kind of raw pulp we'd expect Wilder to refine into a cautionary tale of poorly planned nefariousness. And yet the film plays perversely with this expectation. (Never mind, of course, that in 1957 auteur theory was still barely a biting rant on some certain tendencies of French cinema.) Rather than render the aftermath of the alleged crime through the lucid if naïve eyes of the alleged criminal, Wilder instead offers reflections and refractions, hearsay and suspicious accusations: the main character is not Vole but the pompous barrister with heart trouble, Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), whom he's employed to plead his case. And Wilder pads most of the running time not with scenes that make Vole's morality appear ambiguous, but with silly skits wherein Robarts secretly smokes cigars in his office, quietly quaffs brandy in court, and altogether avoids his doctor-prescribed naps—much to the chagrin of his stoic nurse (Elsa Lanchester, a casting coup par excellence).
Still, these moments of comic relief aside, Vole and Robarts respectively embody the yin (effete, sincere, and prone to mishap) and yang (belligerent, sarcastic, and prone to success) comprising Wilder's dualist conception of masculinity, and the sequences wherein they square off are to be relished. Vole proclaims his innocence with “aw shucks” boyishness; the incredulous Robarts grills his client under the blinding oval of sunlight bouncing off a monocle. Laughton, true to form, attacks his role with nearly declamatory arrogance and enunciative aplomb. Power's performance is meanwhile so anonymous and effortless—even the camera avoids framing him alone, as if he weren't interesting enough to deserve more than the occasional close-up—that we begin to assume everything he says is not only plausible, but purely pedestrian veracity. (The copious Laughton-less flashbacks describing how Vole met and wedded his German cabaret singer-wife, played by Marlene Dietrich, are easy to tune out.)
We should, of course, know better than to invest ourselves thusly. The twist at the film's end, which I won't spoil, is in one sense standard Agatha Christie—Vole's devoted if icily Teutonic spouse morphs from a red herring into the turncoat witness of the title—but the manner in which it shuffles the ethical hierarchy represented by the characters is pure Wilder. At the start of the film, Vole's aggressive ordinariness compels us to take him at his word with regards to the scandal in which he's become embroiled. But it's Robarts who winds up committing what we'll call Wilder's “classic male error.” Like Walter Neff, he's too convinced of his own certainty, and like Chuck Tatum, he can't stomach ill-gotten success. But at least, like Richard Sherman, he's eventually able to recognize the thin ice on which he's trod, and back away from the crack in it.
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