The final film in the Hong Kong Film Archive’s short series honouring the cinematic collaboration between Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, is this masterclass in courtroom drama and wry British wit. Based on the stage play by mystery grand dame, Agatha Christie, the film stars Charles Laughton as a world-weary barrister, recovering from a heart attack, yet enticed back to the bar by a juicy murder case. Tyrone Power plays the American for serviceman accused of bludgeoning a rich spinster for her cash, while Dietrich is his loyal, trophy wife – a former club singer from Berlin.
To this extent, the film occasionally feels almost as though it could be a sequel of sorts to A Foreign Affair, following Dietrich in the years after she escaped Germany. However, these are merely amusing coincidences between the two films, as Witness for the Prosecution proves incredibly gripping and often hilarious in its own right, turning the screws towards an excellent surprise ending. Wilder even feels compelled to issue a request over the film’s end credits, for audiences not to reveal the film’s ending to those yet to see it.
While Dietrich is on stellar ice queen form, and Elsa Lanchester (the Bride of Frankenstein herself) puts in a great comic turn as Laughton’s overbearing nurse, it is the big man himself who steals the show. Whether cross-examining witnessing using his “monocle test”, mulling over the intricacies of Powers’ alibi or plotting his own deception to sneak a crafty cigar without his nurse finding out, it is a larger than life show-stopper of a performance in a film that barely puts a foot wrong.