Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution is a great blend of his penchant for dark potboilers, wry wit and outright slapstick. With such ease the director volleys between his tones and the performances of Laughton and Dietrich are enough to carry the film, making the presence of the stellar supporting cast icing on the cake. Witness for the Prosecution takes an earnest look at rule of law and survival, of gaming a system and being gamed by it, with undertones highlighting the difference between being alive and having a lust of living. Laughton's character is recovering from a coma, an experience that has put his continued existence in question and the duration of his life from now until the end of his days depends solely on his willingness to change his ways. Old habits die hard in Wilder's world, and why go on living if we can't continue to do the thing we live for? In this case it's winning a murder trial against all odds, taking on this challenging criminal cases, the thrill of the chase and (of course) cigars and brandy. It's also making it out of a war torn country to the safety of a society that hasn't been ripped apart, to a normalcy, a calm. It's also escaping that calm, the hum drum, for a life of affluence. Wilder's characters here each have something that keeps them going; excitement, riches, love. Though their best interests would be served not to follow these vices, they can't help it, even love is a vice in Witness for the Prosecution. Dietrich, Laughton and Power all desire what ultimately threatens their demise, and only when they walk away from their individual temptations can they be saved at all. Through the proceedings, we watch as they each falter and give in, and by the film's rousing finale, those who can be saved have extricated themselves from their respective vice that threatens to bring them down. This is where Wilder finds the heart and humor of his story and where the film excels beyond the tensely packed pace that rivals some of the best of courtroom drama. Laughton's constant fiending for cigars and booze is Wilder at his most cheeky here and it works to great effect.
The film's Agatha Christie source material provides much of the drama and the ending is nothing if not a great pull-the-rug-out moment that caps the proceedings with a punch. Wilder saves his biggest moments of performance for this scene letting the film be resigned for much of its runtime and only letting us in on the high drama for the conclusion. The only misstep is the over-the-top manner by which a new development to kick off the third act is idly tossed into the mix of what had otherwise been a straightforward procedural that existed on its own subtlety and lack of clues to create the mystery in a vacuum. One of the film's greatest strengths for first two acts are the scant pieces to its puzzle. We encounter a wide array of characters deemed 'trustworthy' as they are officials, directly related to Laughton's character, or entirely unrelated to the murder plot. That two hours breezes by is a triumph of pacing as we rarely exit the two settings of the court room and Laughton's character's home office. We are allowed to linger on each development as we move through the scenarios, we are allowed to have moments of character that Wilder weaves so well. It is one of his greatest strengths as a screenwriter to be able to flesh out such characters with personality quirks that function as calling cards and never come across as a gimmick. Here, it is Laughton's signature monocle that reflects sunlight into the eyes of those he interrogates, a clever play to discern the truth sans polygraph. The film is really the thrill of watching him play both banister and detective, digging up the clues to prove his case, completing the puzzle of lies and liars all around him. To watch the justice system subverted is his greatest horror and to know that he has played the part in its subversion, not willingly, but by becoming blinded by performance. A series of technicalities present themselves throughout the film, the question of the legal status of Dietrich's marriage, for example, places where caveats of a system of law obscure human truth. When the curtain falls we have yet again seen the system used to its own disadvantage, played as a pawn to get away with murder. How thrilling it is to see Laughton spring back to the life at the film's end, the thrill of the hunt is on and the newfound purpose reinvigorating the old man.
Witness for the Prosecution is great mid-career Wilder, far away from the noir dramas that characterize his early career and not yet reaching the comedy that would become his legacy. While not reaching the depth nor heights of either, what Wilder does here is no less tense and involving, with myriad characterizations, especially from Bride of Frankentstein vets Elsa Lancaster and Una O'Connor, filling out the scenes with a richness beyond the simple whodunit mystery element. It is also one of Laughton's best performances, a great pairing of actor and director, both with the sardonic edge and a tongue-in-cheek wit to keep the picture from drying up into anything too dreary (as with, honestly, most courtroom films). Instead we are treated to numerous punchy moments of the system being used to its full potential and becoming its own instrument of demise.