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Tuesday 8 October 2013

Courtroom Drama 101

Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many commitments have taken me away from this blog, but a recent Facebook thread has inspired me to re-post this short review I put up on a few sites back in 2010.


Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) is a brilliant barrister who has fallen on ill health. Having just returned from hospital he is under the strict supervision of his personal nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lancaster), whose mandate is to follow his doctor's orders and to keep him away from his great loves of brandy, cigars and criminal cases. Unfortunately for Miss Plimsoll, Robarts is as determined at breaking these rules as she is at enforcing them, especially when Leonard Vole arrives as his client just ahead of being arrested by the police.

Vole is accused of wooing and murdering a wealthy older woman. An ex-solider who has married a peculiar German woman, Christine, Vole appears to be a very naïve man that will have little chance against his prosecution. Against his nurse's express orders, Robarts decides to take the case on. However, Robarts hasn't taken into account the extra player in this game, Vole's wife who first provides him with an alibi, but later will appear as a witness for the prosecution...


Agatha Christie can be ranked with William Shakespeare and Groucho Marx as an artist whose contribution to entertainment is so great that she has an unconscious influence over culture. So many plot devices and structures can be traced back to her original works. The slasher horror subgenre, for example, owes a lot to her masterpiece "And Then There Were None". "Witness for the Prosecution" introduced us to the courtroom drama with a decidedly nasty twist. From the feature film "Primal Fear" to the pilot episode of "Kavanagh Q.C." this clever sucker punch rarely fails to deliver so long as the Christie formula is loyally adhered to. Considering the scale this story often takes whether it is as a film for the big screen or TV or as Christie's own adaptation as a stage play, it is easy to forget that its origin is as a short story. And yet the outline is pretty simple, which is where its genius lies. By having a clever structure for the story that is never runs into conflict with anyone's interpretation,* the story leaves the material wide open for some great characterization. And on that note I give you the great Charles Laughton.

In retrospect critics might say that the 1957 film adaptation of "Witness for the Prosecution" was merely another vehicle for the Charles Laughton show, featuring the Elsa Lancaster (her of "Bride of Frankenstein" fame) as his indispensible sidekick, but it doesn't float with me. Laughton and Lancaster are brilliantly respectively cast as Sir Wilfred Robarts and his long-suffering nurse, Miss Plimsoll. As always they provide a great onscreen chemistry together with Robarts, the ailing brilliant barrister, rebelling against his nurse's adherence to medical procedure. It provides the right amount of comedy relief and yet never feels like a simple add-on, as we see the genuine mutual respect between the two opponents/close friends in the spirit of the master/butler device common in British stories.

"Witness for the Prosecution" is a beautifully produced during the golden age of the drama and thriller. Films were clearly moving out of the hammy stagey domain they occupied during the 1930s and '40s, and settling into a genre of its own. The '50s were, of course, the time of major developments within the high concept and gimmick genres, but the serious drama had also clearly matured from its theatrical roots and "Witness for the Prosecution" is a great example of this. Billy Wilder is rightly considered one of the best directors in history and his keen build up the action, setting the scene, cutaways and expertly run scenes in the courtroom are surely influences in their own right over the courtroom dramas that were to follow.

If it's a wet and windy afternoon or evening, and you need something cosy yet stimulating to settle up to then you can't go far wrong with this excellent piece of cinema history.

*Although it should be noted Christie, herself, added to the ending of her short story when she turned it into a play and it this ending that all the straight adaptations to date use.

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