Tag Archives: Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

Witness for the Prosecution Original Poster

‘Witness for the Prosecution’: Original Poster

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.

Ravages of Time:  Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932 O fearful meditation!  Where, alack,  Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back, Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?  (Shakespeare Sonnet 65)

The Ravages of Time: Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
                  — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

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.

Norma Varden as Emily French:  She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, "ripe to die."

Norma Varden as Emily French: She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, “ripe to die.”

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.

Witness OConnor 02

Witness OConnor 03

Witness OConnor 04

Witness OConnor 05

Witness OConnor

Una O’Connor: The many moods of Janet McKenzie — all of them ill-humored.

Francis Compton, likewise, is wonderfully droll as the learned judge.  He was primarily a stage actor.  This was the last picture he appeared in.

Francis Compton as the Judge

Francis Compton as the Judge

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 . . .?

Kubrick/Douglas ‘Spartacus’ on DVD — Criterion Collection

Kirk Douglas as the revolting slave.

Kirk Douglas as the revolting slave.

Unlike its creators, “Spartacus” (Universal, 1960) is aging gracefully.  Lighter on its feet than most epics of comparable size and length, refreshingly unencumbered by Tinseltown piety (the story ends about 71 years before the birth of Jesus), and painstakingly restored, it’s better than ever.  If nothing in it approaches the thrilling chariot race from “Ben Hur” or the ostentatious spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra barging through the streets of Rome, it is more consistently entertaining than those two swollen meditations on the classical world.

The story of a slave rebellion that shook the Roman republic to its foundations presents an unusually ripe opportunity for fatuous moralizing, especially when it is told by men who had only recently emerged from prison after refusing to help their government oppress its citizenry.  Yet “Spartacus” wastes little breath speechifying against indefensible forms of tyranny.  For this reason, Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay (from Howard Fast’s novel), may seem merely workmanlike at first hearing.  But it’s better than that:  if it hasn’t the facile cleverness of Robert Bolt’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” at least it is free of Bolt’s maddening pretentiousness; Trumbo doesn’t wrap platitudes in epigrams and present them as if they were The Wisdom of the Ages.

With his hair cut en brosse, Kirk Douglas looks little like my idea of a Thracian bondsman, but he sure looks great in his various gunnysack ensembles; he looks even better as a gladiator, when he wears only a burlap diaper and pull-tab galerus (mail shoulder guard).  He’s incredibly photogenic—all sharp angles and muscularity, glistening under a fetching coat of oil.  An actor of extremely limited resources—an adherent of the Don’t-Force-It-Get-A-Bigger-Hammer school of acting—he indicates a narrow range of emotions with terrific energy.  What he lacks in breadth and depth, he attempts to make up for in brute force.  He adopts a generalized mood for each scene, and then proceeds to act out isolated words, as if they had no connection to the scene as a whole.  His acting is an odd combination of crude pantomime and over-emphatic speech, as if he were playing charades and Password at the same time.  He’s at his worst when a scene requires him to appear to be lost in thought; he can’t do it without pulling cartoon faces.  Only Joan Crawford pantomimed the act of thought with such hilarious ineptitude.  Early in the picture, Douglas shares a scene with Woody Strode; in a few minutes they will fight to the death in the arena.

Woody Strode:  Silentium est aureum.

Woody Strode: Silentium est aureum.

Douglas brays and roars and stamps about, while Strode moves not a muscle and silently acts him off the screen.  So does everyone else in the picture, for that matter—Douglas is easily the worst actor in it (even Tony Curtis, as duh Singguh rof Soanggs, is better), but his energy and commitment to the material go a long way to mitigating his shortcomings.

Olivier & Curtis:  Curtis called this scene "Rub-a-dub-dub, Two men in a tub."  Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Olivier's voice, which was lost after this scene was cut.

Olivier and Curtis: Curtis called this scene “Rub-a-dub-dub, Two men in a tub.” Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Olivier’s voice, which was lost after this scene was cut.

The DVD is chiefly recommended for the hilariously scabrous commentary by Douglas, Fast, Peter Ustinov and a few others.  The movie was difficult to make and many big egos were bruised in the process.  Now many of those old wounds are revisited by the people who inflicted them and the ones who still nurse them.  The combination of self-serving reminiscence, egomania, wounded pride and extreme old age makes some of the commentary sound like “The Sunshine Boys.”

Fast, still bitter over his dismissal as screenwriter, unable to disguise either his feelings or his motives, is perhaps the funniest—the embodiment of a peevish old coot.  At first, weary pessimism checks his chagrin.  But before long, Dalton Trumbo’s observations awaken his rancor, and the first sight of Kirk Douglas turns the old boy into Yosemite Sam.  From then on, Fast’s commentary is a nearly unbroken stream of abuse:  scorn pours from him in a feeble voice that trembles with decrepitude and dismay.

Howard Fast:  Red as the 'Daily Worker' & twice as sore.

Howard Fast: Red as the ‘Daily Worker’ and twice as sore.

Douglas (who also produced the picture) defends himself with his own brand of demented indignation, sometimes assuming a crude display of injured innocence, other times affecting a condescending compassion for Fast, whose reason (Douglas implies) has been beguiled by paranoia.  Fast sounds like a sorehead, but Douglas sounds entirely self-serving and not (ahem) perfectly truthful.  He’s a lousy actor, and a worse commentator.  Sadly, his commentary must have been recorded shortly after his stroke, and his diction bears its ravages, lending poignancy to his self-defense.

Both Douglas and Fast have compelling reasons to dislike each other; they both appear to be constitutionally incapable of collaborating or embracing a point of view not entirely their own.  It’s not that they’re willfully dishonest, however:  they simply can’t be trusted to remember things accurately.  Both are highly excitable, passionate, strong-willed men—and completely unable to pretend an objectivity that they don’t have.  They can’t tell a story that makes them look bad.  For all these reasons, they’re unreliable commentators and they cancel each other out.

It was a brutal set to work on:  the all-star cast was a rogues’ gallery of scene-stealers, egomaniacs and intriguers, each plotting to pull focus and winkle screen time away from his co-stars, each seeming to forget that the star was also the producer with the final cut.  True to form, Douglas cut the film to the contours of his ego, and thereby brought all the supporting cast’s jiggery pokery to naught—with the notable exception of Peter Ustinov (prominently featured on the commentary track), who succeeded in getting his own way in everything.  While the others were busily planting knives in each others’ backs, Ustinov cozied up to the boss.  At once self-deprecating and self-serving—Uriah Heep with adipose—he buffaloed everyone, including Fast and Douglas, who granted him permission to write his own lines (and to “tighten” Charles Laughton’s).

Charles Laughton speaks lines 'tightened' by Ustinov.

Charles Laughton speaks lines ‘tightened’ by Ustinov.

Speaking his own brittle aphorisms and blinking his piggy eyes appreciatively at the cleverness of his droll ironies, Ustinov gives his usual ham performance—busy-busy-busy, cartoonish and irrelevant—he’s like one of those  “Fantasia” hippopotami skittering about en pointe.  Onscreen, his tiny eyes glitter with self-congratulation as he pulls focus, while on the commentary track, speaking with the lofty hauteur of an aristocrat, he treats most of his fellow actors as so much dust under his chariot wheels.  But for all his pretentions, he’s a low comedian with plummy overtones—he acts up a storm all by himself, and clutters every line with extraneous business.  One hot afternoon late in the shooting, Laurence Olivier, saddle sore and broiling inside his heavy armor, finally lost patience with Ustinov’s scene-stealing monkeyshines.  Olivier cantered up to him, leant down and said, in a quiet voice with murder in it, “Dear boy, could you perhaps . . . do less?”  Ustinov eventually won an Oscar for his sins, but nursed a grudge against Olivier for the rest of his life.  Though he doesn’t mention the incident in his commentary, he makes casually cruel remarks about Olivier whenever he mentions him — and has the effrontery to psychoanalyze him.  He does, however, resist the temptation to criticize Douglas or Fast outright, choosing instead to praise them—faintly—and let the delicate wince in his voice do the dirty work for him.  Ustinov has the good sense and bad manners to speak ill only of the dead.  He’s so full of himself that you can’t trust a thing he says.  But my God, how well he says it!  Taken as a display of smooth disingenuousness, or as an exercise in carefully disguised self-congratulation, Ustinov’s commentary is virtuoso.  He’s an impressive and thoroughly unreliable raconteur:  ostentatiously erudite, condescending, funny, dropping names like crazy, skewering as he praises, cringing as he swaggers.  As a commentator, he gives the most accomplished performance of his career.

Olivier’s performance in the picture is amused and amusing.  He seems to be enjoying himself, not always in a perfectly innocent way, as in the two homoerotic scenes:  one with Tony Curtis as his catamite, the other with John Gavin as Julius Caesar/Muscle God (“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus!”).  Olivier can’t help leaning into him and stroking his arms with the backs of his fingers.  Gavin is stoic as a Roman and stony as the Appian Way; did he know what Larry wanted?

Olivier & Gavin:  'Dear boy, do you suppose you could do MORE?'

Olivier to Gavin: ‘Dear boy, could you perhaps . . . do MORE?’