15 September, 2015

Witness For The Prosecution

               Let’s just say it:  this is a big one.  There's the cast, sure, led by Ty and Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.  But look who Co-Adapted and Directed:  Mr. Billy Wilder.  From whose famous play?  Dame Agatha Christie (who, yes, also happens to round out our Birthday Bash).  This is indeed one of those wonderful instances of that much talent in-front-of and behind the camera delivering a true A-Picture.  So let's get right to it.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury ...

     Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

      w Billy Wilder & Harry Kunitz                                  and Lawrence B. Marcus
           from the Play by Agatha Christie
      d Billy Wilder

            You know the story, right?  An aging attorney (Laughton) takes the case of Leonard Vole (Power) who’s on trial for the murder of a wealthy widow.  Vole's wife (Dietrich) is his only alibi ... and she testifies against him.  In wonderful Agatha Christie fashion, a series of events cascades into a deliciously melodramatic mix of wit and thrills.  At the end of the movie, a narrator actually implores the audience not to divulge the twist.  And who’d object to that?

Dame Agatha Christie -- who would have been 125 today -- was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15, 1890, in the southwest of England.  She was educated at home by her mother who encouraged her to write.  When she was 16, she moved to Paris to study music.  She was a Nurse during World War I.  And in 1920, she published her first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, introducing us to one of her most famous characters:  Hercule Poirot.  She herself said, “People often ask me what made me take up writing.  I found myself making up stories and acting the different parts.  There's nothing like boredom to make you write.  So by the time I was 16 or 17, I'd written quite a number of short stories and one long, dreary novel.  By the time I was 21, I finished the first book of mine ever to be published.” 

You know her from Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile, but if you haven’t read The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, treat yourself to what Raymond Chandler called “the single greatest whodunit ever written.”  But for a moment let’s single-out her play The Mousetrap.  You saw it, right?  It opened in London on 6 October, 1952.  Haven’t seen it?  Don’t worry, it’s still playing.  As of September of this year, it topped 26,000 performances and holds the record for the longest first-run of any play in history (the only caveat to that is, in 1974, it changed theatres, and they’re next door to each other).  The play is based on Christie’s short story Three Blind Mice, and that’s based on her 1947 Radio Show.  Christie renamed it after “the play within a play” in The Bard’s Hamlet;  and, incidentally, he’s the only author to outsell her.  Just how popular is our Dame?  At the time of her passing in 1976, she’d sold two billion copies of her various works;  and, in 1954, she had three shows running at the same time:  The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web … and The Witness For the Prosecution.

Our movie today is based on that play, The Witness For The Prosecution -- yep, the play has The in its title -- which opened in London on 28 October, 1953.  And that too is based on a short story:  Traitor’s Hands which was first published on 31 January, 1925.  I won’t go into the plot any more than I did at the beginning of this piece -- and that’ll undoubtedly make this a tough piece to write -- but I’d rather be vague than give anything away.  Of the play, The Guardian wrote, “[At what we think is the end] Justice has been done and we nod approvingly, at which moment Mrs. Christie says in effect, “Oh, so you thought that did you?” and with an unforeseen twist of the cards lets us see how wrong we were.”  And The Times wrote, “Mrs. Christie has by this time got the audience in her pocket.  The evidence brings the trial triumphantly to a satisfying conclusion.  And it is only then that the accomplished thriller writer shows her real hand.”

How good is the story?  Producers Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Edward Small bought the rights for $450,000.  Doesn’t sound like much today but the entire budget of the film was only $3 Million (and it would make $9 Million).  Hornblow was an oddly prolific Producer, starting in 1931 and probably best known for Gaslight (1944), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Oklahoma! (1955) but we’ve already visited three of his in Bob Hope’s The Cat And The Canary, The Ghost Breakers and Nothing But The Truth.  Small world, I know, but Ty made our movie today as the first of a two picture contract with Edward Small.  Interestingly, Ty wasn’t the first choice … at least for Billy Wilder.  Wilder had hoped to get William Holden, but Mr. Holden was making The Bridge On The River Kwai.  Wilder then went to Kirk Douglas but he was making Paths Of Glory, both of which opened the door for Ty, which was great for Edward Small because Small wanted Ty to star in his Biblical Epic Solomon And Sheba.  Well, after Ty completed our movie today, he indeed started shooting Solomon And Sheba but, while filming a dueling scene with George Sanders, he had a heart attack and died (Yul Brenner would go on to make that film).  So our movie today is indeed Ty’s last.  And he was only 44.  (Ugh, as I type this, I’m 40 38.)  Witness For The Prosecution was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Charles Laughton as Best Actor and Billy Wilder as Best Director.

Billy Wilder.

He was born Samuel in Polish Austria in 1906, and his mother always called him Billie. The family moved to Vienna, where he became a newspaper reporter.  In 1926, he traveled to Berlin and became a ghostwriter for the German film industry.  Soon he was a credited writer, and his work was well received.  But as World War II encroached, he escaped to Paris, and then to America (his father died in Berlin and his mother in Auschwitz).  Wilder turned up in Los Angeles and fell in with other Refugees who would change film history, most notably Ernst Lubitsch with whom Wilder co-wrote Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and the seminal Ninotchka (famed as “The one where Garbo laughs!”).  Wilder began directing in 1942 with The Major And The Minor from a script written with his first great collaborator, Charles Brackett (remember our talking about Benchley getting out of those wet clothes into a dry martini in the Road To Utopia piece?).  In 1999, Cameron Crowe wrote for Vanity Fair, “There are few filmmakers who don’t crave being compared to [Wilder].  His is a tough-minded romanticism and elegance;  the lack of sentimentality has left him forever relevant as an artist.  A magnificent life, perfectly written and performed, leaving one to wonder:  Is the greatest character creation of young Billie Wilder … Billy Wilder?”

I heard a funny line the other day:  “You either think of Die Hard as a Christmas movie or you’re wrong.”  I don’t know if that’s irrefutable, but this is:  “Either a Billy Wilder title is in your Top 10 or you’re wrong.”  How do I know?  Look at these:

Double Indemnity
Sunset Boulevard
Stalag 17
Some Like It Hot
The Apartment

That’s only his Top 5.  (I didn’t even include a personal favorite, Five Graves To Cairo.)  And don’t forget he usually Co-Wrote them too.  Even more impressive?  Look at how different they are.  He’s as funny as he is dramatic.  Does Noir as easily as Farce.  Can make you laugh-out-loud and damn-near-cry in the same movie.  Over forty years -- his last film was 1981’s Buddy Buddy, written with another landmark collaborator, I. A. L. Diamond -- he’d be nominated for twenty Oscars (winning five), he’d be one of the few Writers nominated in the same year for two different movies, and he was the first person to win Oscars for Writing, Directing and Best Picture (1960's The Apartment, though this was not possible prior to 1951, when the Best Picture Award went to the studio rather than individual producers;  but I digress).  No, there isn’t a Top 10 List out there that doesn’t include him.  Or, indeed, it’s wrong.

This really is a tough piece to write.  Not just because I’m intentionally staying as far away from plot as possible, but it goes back to what I’ve said a few times throughout these Top 5s:  I’m not writing up Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, I’m picking “the little guys” to shed some light on a few films you might not know that I think you’ll enjoy.  So what do I do?  Pick this whopper with Christie, Wilder, Laughton, Dietrich and Ty together;  Christ, Ty -- Twentieth Century’s Fox biggest star -- is the “littlest.”  So what do I say about Charles Laughton?  He was a giant in Theatre and Film.  To say he won an Academy Award probably sounds feigned yet it’s the least Hollywood could do for his breadth of work.  You at least know him from his legendary turn in the ’39 Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and remember he discovered Maureen O’Hara (we spoke a little bit about that in the Black Swan write-up).  And his only Directed Film -- Night Of The Hunter -- is not to be missed (especially for -- as mentioned in the Rawhide write-up -- Mitchum’s genuinely frightening turn).  What else?  Let’s keep it in today’s family.  In the 1928 play Alibi, he was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, and -- they had such a good time on today’s movie -- he was Billy Wilder’s first choice to play Moustache in Irma La Douce.  Unfortunately, Laughton would pass away before that film began.

And it’s tough not to talk about Elsa Lanchester in the same breath.  Nurse Plimsoll in our movie today, Laughton & Lancaster made seven films together and for you horror fans, yep, she’s The Bride of Frankenstein.  And for you I Love Lucy fans, remember when Lucy and Ethel hitch a ride to Florida with the hatchet murderer, Mrs. Edna Grundy?  That’s her.  But it wasn’t all horror all the time:  she’s Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins.  But why are we talking about Laughton & Lanchester together?  Well, they were married in real life, from 1929 to his passing in 1962.  And here’s at least a little I can talk about Witness specifically.  The character of Nurse Plimsoll is not in the play, though for me she’s the thing -- her and Sir Wilfrid’s banter -- that carries the movie.  Court dramas are always tough to make interesting;  you’re stuck with what amounts to a looooot of exposition.  There are greats, of course, but even they have a looooot going for them beyond the courtroom stuff (top of my head, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Verdict and A Few Good Men).  Nurse Plimsoll endears us to Sir Wilfrid, having him surpass the gruffness of Monty Woolley’s The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942) and Clifton Webb’s Mr. Belvedere (1948’s Sitting Pretty);  and I like them both.  We like Sir Wilfrid because (right from the start we know) he and Plimsoll like each other, and that can’t help but be from their real relationship.  I said to Diana after we rewatched this once, “Wouldn’t you love to have dinner with them?”

While I’m thinking of it, I have to mention Una O’Connor as Janet MacKenize in our movie today.  A wonderful Character Actress -- in these Top 5s we saw her in Flynn’s Robin Hood -- she’s the only one to reprise her role from the (Broadway) stage.  Sadly, this, too, was her last movie.  And I won’t do justice to John Williams -- the actor here who you probably know from Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder -- or Henry Daniell who, in my opinion, is the Professor Moriarty.  But we need to move on to a certain German Glammerpuss.

That’s Noël Coward’s loving phrase for her (and more on that later).  She was born -- ready for this? -- Marie Magdalene;  her family nicknamed her "Lene" and around age 11 she combined the two first names.  Miss Marlene Dietrich should need no introduction.  Look at that famous photo of her from Shanghai Express, with the cigarette, looking up into the light.  Like Mr. Laughton, to say she won an Academy Award feels trite.  Peter Bognanovich said, “She transcends her material.  Even in a flighty old tune like ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ she lends an air of the aristocrat, yet never patronises.”  For this write-up, how about remembering she had strong political convictions and spoke them freely.  In the 30s, The Nazi Party approached her to return to Germany but -- in that tense climate -- she told them to go to hell.  In the late 30s, she and Billy Wilder created a fund to help Jews escape Germany;  she put into escrow her entire salary for Knight Without Armor ($450,000;  that’s $7.3 Million today).  And in 1939 she renounced her German citizenship and became an American citizen. 

Throughout her career Dietrich had an unending string of affairs, some short-lived, some lasting decades;  and they often overlapped-with and were-almost-always-known-to her husband.  They included Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Erich Maria Remarque (who, remember, would marry Paulette Goddard), Yul Brenner, George Bernard Shaw and President Kennedy.  My favorite is the Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, simply because it’s said she stole him from Greta Garbo.

After the fall of The Berlin Wall, Dietrich instructed in her will to be buried in her birthplace, Berlin, near her family.  After her funeral in Paris -- a strange bookend to her being born Marie Magdalene (she was an Atheist) -- she was indeed interred in Berlin, next to the grave of her mother, near the house where she was born.  She herself once said, “The legs aren't so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”  And, “I was an actress.  I made films.  Finish.”

Did you miss The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther?  I did.  Let’s see what he had to say about our movie today (in part):  For a courtroom melodrama pegged to a single plot device, the film production of the Agatha Christie play comes off extraordinarily well.  This results mainly from Billy Wilder's splendid staging of the courtroom scenes and a first-rate theatrical performance by Charles Laughton.  Mr. Wilder sees to it, as the murder trial drags along and the wife, in defiance of tradition, appears as witness against her own husband, that there's never a dull moment.  It's the balancing of well-marked characters, the shifts of mood, the changes of pace and the interesting bursts of histrionics that the various actors display.”  It's often said Wilder actually improved on the play, streamlining the court stuff and even making Sir Wilfrid’s heart attack -- will he make it through the trial? -- a minor suspence (again Wilder’s cynical sense of humor weaved into the relationship with Nurse Plimsoll that for me, again, carries it).  And Mr. Crowther is not wrong to single out Laughton, even from such prestigious co-stars as Ty and Lene, both of whom were icons (if stratospheric fifteen years before):  Tyrone Power has his ups as the accused man, Marlene Dietrich hits her high points as his wife, but it’s Mr. Laughton who runs away with the show.  A certain famous British Prime Minister has plainly inspired his artful airs and gravelly voice.  And Miss Lanchester is delicious as that maidenly hen-pecking nurse.  All parry and punch from the word ‘Go!’ this black-and-white drama is a hit.”

And a hit it was.  If you’ve seen it, you know why.  If you haven’t, I’ve intentionally not said anything about the story so you can.  So go now;  I know you’ll enjoy.  Of course, until you’re sure your friends have seen it, remember how it ends:  “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not devulge to anyone the secret of the ending for Witness For The Prosection. 

 And that wraps up this round of Top 5s.  What more should we say?  Tyrone Power appeared in forty-five films, remains Twentieth Century Fox's greatest (male) star (second only to Shirley Temple), became a Lieutenant in World War II -- get this, this is real, flying cargo-in and wounded-out during the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa -- was sensationally involved with Judy Garland and Lana Turner, married three times, and would literally die while filming a dueling scene, never meeting his son who was born posthumously. 

 At his funeral, Cesar Romero gave the eulogy, Laurence Olivier read a poem, and Henry King flew his plane overhead.  And Ty now rests in Hollywood Forever cemetery, next to a small lake, beneath a little marble bench engraved with the masks of comedy and tragedy.


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