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Witness For The Prosecution (1957): Exciting Courtroom Action

Review Copyright Roger Zotti, 2002

WFTP

Directed by Billy Wilder and filled with memorable twists, Witness For The Prosecution is an intelligent, witty, and suspenseful courtroom drama.

Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, an unemployed, aspiring inventor accused of murdering the elderly, wealthy widow he has befriended. Vole has inherited all of the woman's money; more, he had visited her on the night of her death.

William Holden was the first choice for the role of Vole. But he wasn't available. Then Wilder offered Power the part. The actor expressed reservations because he didn't relish being overshadowed by co-star Charles Laughton's character, barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts who, despite declining health, can't resist the challenge to defend Vole.

After producer Edward Small offered Power $300,000, he accepted. Marlene Dietrich portrays the film's most mysterious character, Vole's wife.

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As the mischievous, highly intelligent Sir Wilfrid, Laughton's performance energizes the film. He received an Academy Award nomination, the third in his distinguished career.

And in a performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Elsa Lancaster is in perfect form as Sir Wilfrid's nurse. The banter between Sir Wilfrid and her is terrific (in real life Lancaster and Laughton were husband and wife.)

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Wilder regarded Laughton as the best actor he ever worked with and recalls the actor's scrupulous preparation for one of his courtroom monologues. They began rehearsing at six in the evening. "At nine o'clock," Wilder said, "we were at version number twenty-one. And he got better and better ... And the next morning he said, 'I have it!' Version twenty-two. And that's the one we shot."

According to Kevin Lalley, Wilder's biographer, Wilder also said: "[Y]ou can tell how good an actor is by looking at his script. If he's not good, it will be as neat as a pin." Laughton's was a mess. "...it looked like a herring had been wrapped in it," Wilder continued. "He had obviously digested it and regurgitated it - whole!"

Some critics accused Laughton of being too theatrical. Others said he was too big for the films in which he appeared.

In his last film, Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962), he toned down his character, Southern Senator Seab Cooley. The result was a charming and believable performance.



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