When Billy Wilder was asked to name the best actor he ever worked with, his reply was immediate and final: “Charles Laughton.” Wilder worked with Laughton only once, but it’s easy to see why he held him in such high regard: Laughton really was one of the most remarkable actors of his time. Unlike Claude Rains, Laughton was often terrible — he veered far beyond the bounds of sentimentality time and again, and if he weren’t held in check, he had a tendency to ham it up. But in the right material — not necessarily good material — with the right director, Laughton was as great as they come. The picture Billy Wilder directed him in was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s stage play, “Witness for the Prosecution.” With one notable exception, the acting is of so high a calibre, one barely can tell how thin the material is or notice the many holes in the plot. The cast is full of first rate character actors, along with one or two amusingly second rate character actors (e.g., Henry Daniell, the ubiquitous Nellie from the 40s and 50s). But the star is unquestionably the third-billed Charles Laughton, who appears to be having a fine time as the eminent barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (known by his admirers as “Wilfred the Fox”), who defends a man by the name of Leonard Vole in a murder trial.
Most of the picture takes place indoors, in one of two settings — Sir Wilfred’s law offices, and a courtroom at the Old Bailey. Laughton and the supporting cast put on such a great show, there’s no sense of claustrophobia. Indeed, the only claustrophobic scenes are those outside of the main settings . . . and that’s due almost entirely to Tyrone Power, who has top billing in the picture. Power, at 44, is at least ten years too old to play the defendant, repeatedly referred to as “young man” — and looks at least twenty years too old. The poor man died the following year, and he looks as if he might drop dead at any second. He was never a good actor; when he was young, he was so stupendously attractive, nobody seemed to notice — but he aged badly (in “Witness for the Prosecution,” he often looks like Bela Lugosi — see below). Without his youthful good looks, Power’s incompetent line readings had nowhere to hide. Never mind — the rest of the cast are game, and more than a few of them have aces up their sleeves.
Leonard Vole is accused of the murder of Emily Jane French, a well-to-do widow who had befriended him several months before her death. Mrs French is played by the estimable Norma Varden, who had more than 150 credits to her name when she died. She is perhaps best known as the wife of the monocled Englishman in the zebra-striped tie who gets his pocket picked in the first scene of “Casablanca.” She was also the dithery clubwoman who is nearly strangled at a party by Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train.” Mrs French is a small role, but Varden makes the most of it. I’m always glad to see her whenever she pops up in a picture.
Varden’s amusing, pathetic Emily French is but one of several lively performances in the picture. I’m particularly fond of the hatchet-faced, always welcome comedienne, Una O’Connor, who was so memorable in “The Invisible Man,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and indeed, every one of the 84 pictures she appeared in. Her turn as Emily French’s devoted servant, Miss Janet McKenzie in “Witness for the Prosecution” was her last, and perhaps her very funniest. I hope you can tell from the pictures below that she is riotously funny every second she’s on the screen. She’s also perfectly believable: she does not play Miss McKenzie as a sweet old dear — no Helen Hayes she — no, she plays her as a querulous, suspicious old bitch. There’s nothing remotely camp or overbroad about her desiccated little termagant . . . just honest hilarity. Here she is in the witness box.
Francis Compton, likewise, is wonderfully droll as the learned judge. He was primarily a stage actor. This was the last picture he appeared in.
What all of these actors, beginning with Laughton, have in common is that they elevate the material. By their very nature, courtroom dramas rely more heavily on exposition than most other movie genres, so it’s important that the actors who speak the exposition have enough personality to make the retailing of facts interesting. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is Sir Wilfred’s opening statement to the jury, before he puts his client on the stand. In it, he tells us only what we already know. The speech lasts just under two and a half minutes. Except for an insert about halfway in, Wilder lets Laughton deliver it in a single take. I expect Laughton did the whole speech in one take, and Wilder chose to add an insert to keep it from being overly static. But it’s a marvel of great acting. A recitation and repetition of facts that Laughton makes riveting, by sheer force of technique and personality. In his heyday, it was said that Laughton could wring tears from an audience by reading the phone book. The clip below suggests that this claim was not an exaggeration.
It would be ungentlemanly of me to neglect Marlene Dietrich. Her performance is wonderful, everything it should be. It’s even in the way being of a tour de force, albeit a quiet one. She and Laughton play together beautifully. They must have liked each other enormously. But what must she have thought of Tyrone Power . . .?
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