Agatha Christie dramatized her striking 1933 short story “The Witness for the Prosecution” for the London stage in 1953 where her clever plotting and delicious sense of mystery made it the most critically celebrated of all of her dramatic efforts. While The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web, and The Unexpected Guest had longer London runs than Witness for the Prosecution, they’ve never been quite as celebrated by critics as Witness has been, and in New York, Witness won Tony Awards for both of its leading players as well as being mentioned as a finalist for the Best Play Tony in 1955 (in the early years, the Tony committee didn’t nominate plays formally but rather considered a slate of worthy candidates before declaring a winner. The play did win the New York Drama Critics prize as Best Foreign Play that season.) Billy Wilder’s 1957 movie adaptation of the play expanded the cast of characters with some entertaining backstory and some delightful running gags while retaining Mrs. Christie’s remarkable courtroom drama with all of its startling surprises fully intact.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 56 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Release Date: 07/22/2014
After recovering from a severe heart attack that had left him for a time in a coma, barrister Sir Wilfrid Robards (Charles Laughton) is forbidden by his doctor from taking on any strenuous murder cases, but he can’t help himself when solicitor Mayhew (Henry Daniell) brings him the pitiable Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), likely to be arrested any moment for the murder of Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a widow who had taken such a fancy to the charming but penniless inventor that she eventually changed her will in his favor after which she was found murdered in her sitting room by her housekeeper Janet MacKenzie (Una O'Connor). While he protests his innocence so imploringly that Sir Wilfred believes him and takes the case, he is nonetheless arrested because his only alibi is to be provided by his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), and she exhibits a very cold and calculating manner when questioned by the barrister, a demeanor that Sir. Wilfred knows will never win the jury over to Vole’s side.Among the greatest of all courtroom dramas not only for the exciting give and take that occurs as the adversaries for and against Vole manage to present damning pieces of evidence that one after another the wily Sir Wilfred manages to taint just enough to possibly insure reasonable doubt but also for its incredible series of twists which occur in the film’s last twenty minutes. Those with astute senses of hearing may ascertain in advance of its revelation at least one of those surprise twists Mrs. Christie has sprung on the unsuspecting audience, but it would be a clever person indeed who could divine all of the tricks she’s got in store. The adaptation of the stage play by director Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz opens up the character of Sir Wilfred by adding all of the business about his frail health and the persistent nattering about of his overly solicitous nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), additions which keep the talky aspects of a courtroom drama with its pieces of evidence and series of testimony by a succession of witnesses in check with these delightful added comic touches. Flashbacks offering the stories of Vole and Mrs. French and the initial meeting of Vole and Christine in Germany also provide a welcome change of pace from stuffy barrister's chambers and courtrooms. And Wilder takes the opportunity to film the trial in the (brilliant studio reproduced version of) the Old Bailey from every conceivable angle and with interesting variations of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups where appropriate. As the noose closes tighter and tighter around Vole’s neck, the camera gets jammed right in Tyrone Power’s face as he struggles to understand how things are going so wrong for him when he’s innocent.Charles Laughton rarely had so juicy a role to play in his later career than Sir Wilfred, and he’s a one-man band of wily plotting, devious maneuvers, and commanding authority in the courtroom all the while sneaking in his doctor-forbidden brandy and cigars right under the nose of his fussy nurse. Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll matches him beat for beat in the comedy department as they lob and volley shots back and forth as they match wits about his health. This is likely Tyrone Power’s best performance of the 1950s and likely so good due to the months he had spent touring on stage with Laughton in John Brown’s Body and learning from the master before embarking on this film. Marlene Dietrich also had rarely had so demanding a role as Christine Vole (nee Helm) in quite a number of years, and her poker-faced delivery of lines so calm and in control in the early going only to explode later in rage in court marks a high point in her career, too. The film is further enhanced by a stunning supporting cast of players from the hilariously vituperative Una O'Connor as the angry Janet, the controlled authority of both Henry Daniell and John Williams as aides to Sir Wilfred, Ian Wolfe as his loyal valet Carter, Torin Thatcher as Robards’ courtroom adversary, Norma Varden as the friendly Mrs. French, and Ruta Lee as a courtroom spectator who gets drawn into the dramatics of the trial.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
The film is presented here framed at 1.66:1 in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Much cleaner and less damaged than the previous DVD release, the transfer here offers excellent sharpness (occasional shots seem a trifle less sharp than others) and a very pleasing and accurate grayscale with blacks which might not plumb the depths but are more than acceptable and whites that are clear and clean. Contrast is generally outstanding though there are a few slightly milky moments. You’ll see an occasional speck of dust here or there but nothing akin to the DVD’s artifacts. The film has been divided into 8 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is very typical of its era. With the movie so dialogue-heavy, it’s important that the words be heard clearly, and there is no fear of any interference with this transfer. There are no age-related artifacts like hiss or crackle to disrupt the listening experience, and Matty Malneck’s spare music score (Dietrich even gets a song in her flashback episode "I Will Never Go Home Any More" which sounds splendid) and the occasional sound effects also never disrupt anything that is being said. This is a solid, professional audio encode.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Billy Wilder Interview (6:31, SD): Billy Wilder (speaking partly in German, partly in French, and partly in English) discusses with director Volker Schlondorff the strengths of Christie’s original play and the changes which he brought to it along with his tributes to the work of Laughton and Dietrich in the film.Theatrical Trailer (3:07, HD)
Special Features Rating: 2/5
Nominated for six 1957 Academy Awards, Witness for the Prosecution is one of the greatest film adaptations of all of the works of Agatha Christie. Offering an excellent picture and sound encode, fans of the film should be delighted to upgrade to Blu-ray from their previous non-anamorphic DVDs of this terrific courtroom whodunit. Highly recommended!
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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