Movie Review: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Noted barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just been released from the hospital after suffering a heart attack and is heading back to his office at the Inns of Court (where he is also fortunate enough to have his residence). Accompanying him, much to his irritation, is his home health care aide, Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). She’s tasked with looking after his health; making sure he gets plenty of rest, avoids stressful situations, takes his medications, and completely avoids his beloved cigars and brandy.

This is torture as far as Sir Wilfrid is concerned. Fortunately, almost immediately after his return to his office, Solicitor Mayhew (Henry Daniell) arrives, with Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in tow. Vole is in a really tight spot: a widow with whom he has been on friendly terms has been killed, and as he was the last person to see her alive, he’s expecting to be arrested for murder at any moment. Could the great “Wilfrid the Fox” be so good as to represent him in court? Shouldn’t be too hard – Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) can give him an alibi….

Witness for the Prosecution is the screen adaptation of a stage version of an Agatha Christie story. A large difference is the addition of the character of Nurse Plimsoll. Apparently, Laughton was in declining health at the time, and his wife – Elsa Lanchester – was given the role so she could keep an eye on him during filming. This makes the friendly bickering of the characters so believable. Having Billy “Some Like it Hot” Wilder co-write the screenplay and direct the film helped, too. Their interaction is really the highlight of the movie – not the sudden twists of the plot in the final scene.

Courtroom dramas make for good stage plays, since there’s typically only one set – the theater is just a large courtroom. And if a stage play is well received, it’s likely to be adapted for the big screen. One problem, though, is that realism has to be sacrificed for dramatic purposes. All the paperwork, research, and preparation that lawyers do well before they appear in court is too boring to be shown. Just like all the negotiations between the parties and the judge as to what evidence is admissible, what witnesses will be called, etc. Tedious stuff that is rarely mentioned outside of a TV drama set in a law firm. From what I gather, courtroom dramas are about as accurate as police shows. Legal people have cited My Cousin Vinny as the most accurate movie about their profession, since it shows all that behind the scenes stuff done in preparation for a trial – just like the TV show Barney Miller has been called the most realistic police show, since it shows officers doing the paperwork involved and trying to get parties to resolve things on their own so they don’t have to do paperwork.

An American viewer might not catch any of the “dramatic license” steps taken in Witness, since it’s set in the British courts*. They’ve got their own set of rituals and traditions (the wearing of wigs, for example) that are supposed to impress upon those in attendance the seriousness of the occasion. The one thing that most Americans might find befuddling is the whole “solicitor / barrister” separation. Isn’t a lawyer a lawyer? What’s the difference, and why? A “solicitor” is a lawyer whose specialty is in the background aspects – research, filing lawsuits, drawing up contracts, giving advice, etc. You would keep a solicitor on retainer to help you with any of the usual legal issues you might come across. A “barrister” is the lawyer who speaks for your side when you are actually in court. Two very different skill sets. As to why there is this division of labor, I have no clue. Perhaps one of my dozen or so readers can enlighten me on this.

The “whodunit” aspect of the story isn’t bad. It plays fair with the viewer; nothing really comes out of nowhere (if you’ve been paying a reasonable amount of attention). But then, you’re not here to solve a puzzle – or even to see Dietrich give a performance in a dingy nightclub in post-war West Berlin. You’re here for the cracking dialog and to see Sir Wilfrid try and sneak cigars past the ever-watchful eyes of Nurse Plimsoll….

Sir Wilfrid: Would you like a cigar? Pardon me.
[Takes cigar out of Mayhew’s suit pocket; offers it to Inspector Hearne]
Inspector Hearne: That’s very kind of you Sir Wilfrid.
Sir Wilfrid: (Pauses) I better not, it would constitute a bribe.
[Places cigar into his own suit pocket]

* I caught one thing – why would the court leave all the exhibits and physical displays out on a table in the front of the room after the jury has left to deliberate? Wouldn’t someone collect them for proper storage once they were no longer needed in the trial? If there were some reason to have them – couldn’t someone easily go get them?

One thought on “Movie Review: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

  1. Solicitor/barrister: I used to know a lawyer in Philadelphia who was part of a small firm, perhaps four lawyers total. This was a litigation firm, but my guy was the only one who went to court. The others worked up the case beforehand. This was a pragmatic division of labor. He enjoyed being in the courtroom and enjoyed it. Many lawyers do not. I never met his partners, but clearly the decided to lean into his strengths. I imagine the English distinction is essentially an institutionalized version of this. Also, I imagine they have different training.

    Liked by 1 person


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