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MGM Studios DVD presents
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

"I didn't kill her! I never killed anyone! God, it's like a nightmare, some ghastly horrible dream!"
- Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: December 04, 2001

Stars: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton
Other Stars: Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Torin Thatcher, Una O'Connor, Phillip Tonge, Ian Wolfe
Director: Billy Wilder

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language, brief violence)
Run Time: 01h:56m:16s
Release Date: December 11, 2001
UPC: 027616869425
Genre: mystery

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B+B+ D

DVD Review

Agatha Christie's mysteries often translate well to the screen. One of the most notable of such adaptations is also one of the earliest. In the capable hands of director Billy Wilder, aided by a splendid cast, the mystery still holds up quite beautifully.

Sir Wilfred Robards (Charles Laughton) is a prominent barrister, but has just suffered a heart attack. Attended by the nauseously ingratiating Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he has been ordered not to take on any more criminal cases. However, when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is charged with murdering a widow, Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), he determines that he will take the case. Though Sir Wilfred believes in Vole's innocence, the defense depends on the testimony of Vole's wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), but her alibi for Vole is shaky at best. When Mrs. French's will is disclosed to have been changed in favor of Leonard, things look extremely bad for him, but he does have the most capable counsel possible.

Much of what is likeable about this picture is the portrayal of Sir Wilfred by Laughton. Irascible and incorrigible, he is foul-tempered and clever to a fault. His wit is well-tested, both in the courtroom and in evading Nurse Plimsoll's ministrations. Although Laughton's marriage to Lanchester was reportedly one of convenience, it's undeniable that they play off each other beautifully. Their portrayals sparkle and make the film rewatchable, even when one knows the solution to the mystery (which is of course suitably twisted, but no more of that lest there be spoilers). Una O'Connor, who played twitchy servants in The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein, capably portrays yet another quirky servant here, Mrs. French's maid, Janet Mackenzie. Character actor J. Pat O'Malley is pretty much wasted in a miniscule role that can be missed with a blink.

The weak link is the hero, Tyrone Power. Whenever he has center stage, things crash to an abrupt halt. His delivery is overly fast and insincere, more on a par with a high school presentation of the play on which the film is based. Of course, this is fitting for a character named after a small rodent (though the name has a secondary meaning that dictionary-hunters may find amusing at the film's end). Dietrich, near the end of her film career, reprises her Blue Angel-type role as a cabaret singer in the waning days of WWII. She pulls off a surprisingly adept performance here, even though there are extreme machinations used to reveal one of her famous legs.

Wilder's script manages to move briskly despite all the character interplay; the thoroughly British sensibility of the original comes through very nicely. Sir Wilfred gets most of the good lines, and Laughton definitely makes the most of them. As courtroom dramas go, this is one of the best.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The black & white picture is provided with a gorgeous nonanamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. Detail is excellent, and compression ringing artifacts are quite minor. Black levels are excellent and a striking range of greys is presented. The only drawback is that the source print has moderately heavy speckling through much of the running time. The transfer is attractive enough, however, that the speckling issue is not terribly upsetting.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono track sounds quite nice indeed. Hiss and noise are nearly nonexistent; this is particularly striking when comparing the film to the rather noisy and hiss-filled trailer supplied on the disc. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Music is occasionally a little on the distorted side, but overall this is an excellent mono track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The sole extra is a trailer that gives away much of the climax. As noted above, it's quite noisy. The chaptering is the standard MGM 16 chapters, which is only just adequate.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Agatha Christie's classic play and novel come to the screen, aided by a highly amusing script and a great performance by Charles Laughton. MGM provides a beautiful transfer as well, though the disc is quite short on extras. A pleasing presentation of a classic.


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