Sometimes you talk to people about black and white films and you get the sense that they somehow feel that they were… naïve. That early Hollywood was too constrained by censors and the studio owners to make films that really grappled with the hard issues of life.
When you find these people, make them watch this film.
Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama set in London, England, and staring Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Barrister. (An aside: If you don’t know what a barrister is, suffice it to say that they’re English trial lawyers, which is to say they specialize in courtroom cases and legal briefs. They don’t to wills or contracts, that’s a solicitor’s job. If you want more than broad, vague generalizations you can follow the proceeding links to Wikipedia.) Wilfrid is approached by Leonard Vole (the debonair Tyrone Power) who is seeking a lawyer to defend him from charges of murdering a rich older lady who had made him the main beneficiary of her will. Wilfrid is in poor health and has a nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who says trying the case will be bad for him. Wilfrid shows his sharp, argumentative mind by somehow turning his health into a reason for Miss Plimsoll to serve as his girl Friday and we’re off to the races.
Like most tales of love and money, this one winds through many strange paths on its way to the resolution. It is, in fact, less about who committed the murder than how the trial will turn out, much like the John Grisham novel The Runaway Jury. It’s based on an Agatha Christie story but, unlike many Agatha Christie stories, it doesn’t hinge on complicated timing or who is or is not left handed. Rather, it hinges on human nature and psychology. These things alone would make it a good movie, but not a great one.
However, the actors are all excellent, the screenplay moves briskly and, more than anything, the final plot twists are stunning. I’m not going to explain them here because, not only are spoilers generally a bad thing, the movie actually comes with a voice-over at the end warning the audience not to discuss the ending with people who haven’t seen the movie! You can tell they didn’t have the Internet back then.
Perhaps more than anything, what comes through in this film is clear insight into the darker side of human nature. While it’s not always pleasant viewing it certainly isn’t naïve, either. Whether you watch it for the story or the acting, I assure you that you won’t be disappointed.