Cool Things: Witness For The Prosecution

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.

Cool Things: The Philadelphia Story

I mentioned a while ago that I do love me some black and white movies. I’ve mentioned Casablanca before, and I figured that I might as well take advantage of this spot to mention a few others that you may not have heard of.

The Philadelphia Story stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, names you’ve hopefully heard of (and if you haven’t, this ain’t a half bad film to watch as a beginner’s primer to their work.) In modern times this movie would probably be considered a romantic comedy, but it has very little in common with the films put under that heading today. A brief synopsis of the story runs something like this:

C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and Tracy Samantha Lord (Hepburn), decidedly upper crust Americans with significant privacy issues, get married (not shown) and quickly get divorced again. Fast forward a bit.

Tracy is planning on getting married again, this time to George Kittredge (John Howard). The editor of a major tabloidesque magazine dispatches a reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Conner (Stewart), and photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to cover the wedding, armed with some juicy blackmail to get the family to play along. Dexter goes along, officially to provide an introduction to the family but unofficially with the hope of winning his ex-wife back. What results is a train wreck of conflicting objectives and personalities.

The Philadelphia Story is great for a plethora of reasons. It’s funny. Really funny, the kind of funny that is timeless in the way it relies on strong, believable and openly conflicting personalities. All of the stars, and the supporting cast, nail their parts, giving performances of a quality that many modern day stars seem to only manage once every four or five movies. But most importantly, the story manages to tackle issues without being in your face about it and without sacrificing the story.

Mike is a solid, proud working man. But at his heart he’s an artist. While he spends most of his time pounding out meaningless social drivel for a second rate gossip rag he once wrote a series of short stories that he published – and sold abysmally. (My sympathies, Mike.) Even so, he views himself as a member of the proletariat, solidly against the bourgeois in all forms. Problems arise when he finds himself attracted to Tracy Lord, very much not a member of the proletariat.

Tracy is a strong, confident woman with little patience for people who can’t match her own level of foresight and character – or so she seems to tell herself. In truth, she’s stand-offish and harsh. She has tossed Dexter for his drinking habit, which disgusted her, and she finds Mike’s insight and sharp wit a match for her own standards.

Dexter stands in the middle of the whirlwind. He still loves Tracy, despite her shrewish behavior towards him, and he hopes that some day she will learn that with high standards must come mercy, or she will wind up cutting herself off from humanity and end very, very alone. He never makes excuses for his bad behavior, but he’s dried out since his drinking days and can’t quite understand why he is still being punished for them. So, with grace and humor he has to gently rebuke Tracy’s excessive zeal, finagle some way to get the Lords out from under the blackmail threats with Mike’s help and hopefully walk away with the girl and a few new friends in the end.

The Philadelphia Story is a great story, well told, but more than anything it’s great for the way it shows the ways in which romance continues after a visit to the wedding alter. Thankfully not all relationships are as rocky as Dexter and Tracy’s. But, with this story in mind, it’s a little easier to believe that, with a little grace and a lot of dedication, even the rockiest can turn out fine in the end.