This post is part of a great party, the Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, hosted by Dorian TB – Tales of the Easily Distracted & Becky – Classic Becky’s Brain Food, please check out all the other great entries in this blogathon!
Never thought I’d have reason to say this, but, thank you Marlene Dietrich!
If not for her desire to play Christine Helm/Vole in this movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s story-turned-play, which was key in securing the involvement of director Billy Wilder, we might never have had this, one of the most perfect mysteries and courtroom dramas ever made. If watching a movie is like going on a trip, Wilder is one of those drivers that instantly make you feel safe, steering with such a sure hand at the wheel that all it takes is a moment to realize you can just sit back and enjoy. But where to begin to describe the trip you’re taken on in Witness? Here’s just a rough map: Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) aging and ailing barrister, is basically forbidden to take any more stressful cases, but those are the kind he lives for, and as fate would have it, that one last big case walks right in his door the day he returns from hospital. A nonchalant, if not entirely oblivious gentleman (Tyrone Power) is just about to be accused of murdering a widow. She rewrote her will in his favor, then was murdered, on a night Power was reportedly seen arguing with her, and has a shaky alibi. Since his wife’s (Marlene Dietrich) testimony for her own husband is inadmissible, it’s a surprise when she appears as witness for the prosecution, and her testimony effectively destroys her husband. If he even is her husband. Then a new person comes forward with some interesting evidence. And there I hit the brakes: I won’t dare spoil any more, not only because it’s a personal commandment I have when writing on movies, but also because if ANY movie called for secrecy to protect the first time viewer, this is the mother of them all. That’s the journey, but a map tells you nothing about the scenery, so I’ll point out a few attractions and sights along the way.
Wilder started out as a writer and always remained a storyteller’s filmmaker. So who better (possibly better even than Hitchcock) to adapt a work by the Queen of intricately woven tapestries, Agatha Christie? Hers are puzzles I enjoy better on screen but whose structures and details present special challenges to filmmakers—can’t keep everything, but cut out or stress the wrong bits or characters and all the fun or worse, the life goes out of the story. Wilder not only picked the right bits to film, but went a step further, adding his own vital elements to improve the story and give meaty parts to his actors. Each character in the movie is introduced by efficient, unobtrusive writing, then carried out by grade-A acting in some brilliant little scenes, starting with our introduction to Sir Wilfrid, a role in which Laughton gives one of his best performances. From the car ride with Nurse Plimsoll (played by Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester) to his return to his office, we learn the essentials of his career and personalityand understand he is the movie’s unshakable voice of reality, refreshingly, even brutally honest and unfiltered, a presence and viewpoint that will anchor the plot. In fact Wilder called Sir Wilfrid the “cement block” and cornerstone upon which the film would be constructed. He hates sentimentality and open displays thereof, and if he has a flaw it is that he considers himself a great lawyer. Wilfrid reluctantly refuses the juicy case at first because of his health, but is just looking for a reason to grab it, which he finds in the prospect of a cigar. Another wonderful scene showing his stubborn streak has him cruising up the stairs, the “barrister on the banister,” in his newly-installed chair-lift, while Dietrich shadows him from below, imploring between this rail, then the next, until he disappears to the upper floor. The camera angle follows him upstairs, shifts to follow Lanchester as she scolds and prepares his bed, then catches sight of him again from above as he’s descended, much faster it seems, to go talk to Dietrich. Another great touch is the way Laughton plays with his nitroglycerin tablets, arranging them in rows, only seeming bored and distracted but still intensely focused on the proceedings. It’s a nice way to show not only Wilfrid’s overactive drive to create order, but also the passage of time and stress of the case; by the trial’s third day there’s only one row of pills left.
Back to Nurse Plimsoll, a character Wilder added to the script to give Wilfrid support, a lovably irritating nag, and in the end an understanding companion. She’s bent on preserving his health to the point that he wishes he were still in a coma, since her fussing sucks all the fun out of life. Adding such a character was a stroke of brilliance, for their chemistry was built in and what would Laughton’s role be without this force to play against? Plimsoll gives him motivation, a reason to think fast, work hard and delight with childish glee when he manages to hide his brandy (sorry, I mean cocoa), cigars and ashes (nice bit where he puts them in a drawer and dumps them out the window. No doubt on some unsuspecting sap below). Laughton is in all scenes a delight, the undisputable highlight in a film with many of them.
The two “stars” of the movie– Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich also did fine work, appropriate and believable (in Dietrich’s case simply stunning) in what I see as very complicated and demanding roles. Power’s character Leonard Vole is a shallow playboy of little substance but loads of confidence, a man who wants to be and seem more, but isn’t really, and who ends up broken down, weary, desperate and in shock, but isn’t really, and that’s a tricky bit of acting to pull off. He first enters Laughton’s office with a swagger and a nonchalance unbefitting a murder suspect, especially one just the second before described by his lawyer as a “ghastly mess.” He takes nothing seriously, for he’s an entirely unserious fellow, a tinkerer, a noncommittal egg-beater inventing dabbler who’s managed to coast on his charm and likability, and his hypnotic effect on women. Power had no trouble playing a charmer, but was capable of disturbingly dark, slimy, ruthless and sinister undercurrents as needed. He soon reveals himself as a player, through that flashback about meeting the murdered Mrs. French (Norma Varden) at the hat shop, which gives us the great line, “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.” Power admits with no shame or hesitation, and with some amusement, how he lied about that ridiculous hat being flattering on her. Now you wonder, why does he get involved with an older woman through a store window like that? Either he’s lying and really was targeting her, or, if we are to believe the flashback as truth, then he likes to toy with strangers, and couldn’t resist an encounter that was both convenient and reinforced his ego. At best, he’s vain, opaque and slightly predatory, and at worst?
Dietrich’s entrance is another swift piece of storytelling. In no time, she tells you she’s tough as nails, unsentimental but almost obsessed with appearances. It’s the same at the very end, when she seems more disturbed over the ladder in her nylons and attends to her lipstick when told she’s likely to serve jail time for perjury. But take note, just like Power’s intro, she’s not as described, and we are not to trust everything we see or hear from characters who claim to know each other well. Dietrich’s one of those actresses you could definitely call an acquired taste (she is to me anyhow) but her work here, which should’ve slayed any doubters, paradoxically went “unawarded,” possibly even disbelieved, because it depends so much on a discovery folded into that don’t-you-dare-spoil ending. Dietrich’s acting talent was an unusual instrument, meant to be carefully wielded and always with the dangerous possibility of overuse, but here she gives an intelligent and careful performance, one fraught with many possible pitfalls but one where she made all the right choices. Even when it looks like she overdid it with the escalating “Damn you’s” she hisses at Laughton in court when her letters are exposed, remember, everyone’s acting and overacting has a purpose. Dietrich manages to be both direct and elusive, stiff and intense. She brings that cold blooded, calculating, haughty quality that was already part of her screen persona, but adds to it an uncharacteristic, almost embarrassing but wholly convincing clinginess, fragility and even some hysteria. There’s a look back at how she met Power –again, you have to take the truth of these flashbacks with a grain of salt once you discover how untruthful these characters can be, and this one has an added layer of fantasy since it practically recreates scenes from Wilder and Dietrich’s earlier film A Foreign Affair. As with Power, flashback is character revelation and Dietrich reveals herself as a perceptive maneuverer; she sees Power’s a user and lets herself be used so she can use him in return.
I know much is made of one certain bit of acting you’re forbidden to reveal, but to me there’s an even better one, a moment I love and rewound a lot while writing this, and one that’s safe to talk about. It’s Dietrich’s brief pause before we get our first reveal, that scene where she stops for a moment to relish her own genius and the effect of the bomb she’s about to drop, the first in what will turn out to be many in the closing minutes of the movie. She prepares Laughton by telling him the “great Sir Wilfrid” can be wrong about something, that possibly someone out there is smart enough to trick even him, then she pauses and assesses him. Her face, her demeanor completely changes in a millisecond as her ego takes over, and with a knowing, mocking grin she proceeds to tell Laughton what she did, lunging at him to drive the point home. For a woman who has seemed so disciplined and tightly controlled, she becomes pure self-satisfied pride and gloating. That is the moment that very, very few actresses would have been able to pull off. Wilder reportedly thought Rita Hayworth wasn’t capable, and another actress considered, Ava Gardner, might have come closer, but Dietrich seems uniquely suited, practically made to deliver a compressed, distilled, packed little bit of intimidating acting like that and seamlessly weaving it into her whole performance.
Not to take away from Wilder’s genius, but this is about Hitchcockian movies so let’s compare: there’s the general similarity of a captivating story revolving around a murder, the presence of briefly drawn but compelling memorable characters, that morbid humor and matter of fact discussion of death and the messy details of killing. You can almost directly compare and contrast to Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a courtroom drama made a decade earlier, rife with marital problems and affairs, which even had Laughton in a similar role (a judge in Paradine—he stole that movie too). Hitchcock fan that I am, I find everything about Witness more involving and entertaining than Paradine. Beyond those easy comparisons, there are many little scenes and touches reminiscent of the type Hitchcock used to lighten, darken and humanize his thrillers, like the way the courtroom reacts to Dietrich’s being called as witness for the prosecution, the way her name is called out and echoes through the room, the way the jury turns their heads in unison to look at her. Laughton’s visit to Power in prison and Mrs. French’s trophy packed home, go heavy on the atmosphere, and also break up the Hitchcockian (but really more owing to the Christie source & play) one-room sets where the majority of the movie takes place, either Laughton’s office or the Old Bailey. According to the article by Rob Nixon and Deborah Looney at TCM, the real Old Bailey was off limits to film crews or even to photographs, so designer Alexandre Trauner used sketches to reconstruct it on the Goldwyn lot at considerable cost, but to great effect (the cost was made up by the film’s big box office haul).
One of the best details is Laughton’s monocle and its glint. That little peering device isn’t just something through which Laughton examines; it’s his little prop, his way of relating to the people and the truth around him, or lack thereof. From the first time he spies Power though the monocle the action suggests skepticism, misgivings and suspicions about something being off. When Laughton senses Power might be less than truthful or the type to wilt under scrutiny, he uses the monocle to direct a blinding glint at Power’s forehead and eye, making him squint and shift in his seat. When Laughton gives Dietrich the same treatment, she only briefly dodges the glint before outsmarting him and cutting off the light by pulling down the office shade. When the prosecution calls Dietrich as a witness, Laughton flicks the monocle out to show his clear view and understanding of things has been disturbed. In the closing moments when there seems no end to the twists upon twists and turns, the monocle is entirely detached as Laughton holds it twisting and spinning in the air, looking at it like a friend that let him down.
That elaborate cascade of climactic surprises is what probably most reminds viewers of Hitchcock, that upending of everything you thought you knew, of what the characters thought they knew about each other, their loyalties, their motives and their own cleverness. Witness is so well paced, a slow laying of a firm foundation upon which an intricate tower goes up incredibly quickly and is brought down with a crash. So much activity goes on in those last few minutes, but surprisingly there is neither overkill nor disbelief; it all makes sense. It’s not only the quantity and creativity of those twists that’s impressive, but their handling and arrangement. Hitchcock policy: if you are shown a gun early in a movie, you better eventually see it fired. In Witness, so many details of plot and character substance must come before the twisty ending to make it even remotely acceptable, foreshadowing from flashbacks and throwaway moments, all culminating in the slap-your-hand-to-your-forehead obviousness of outcomes. Only the sure hand and fine touch of a Hitchcock or Wilder caliber director can guide actors and resources toward preparing the audience so well, and make such a puzzle-plot not only possible but beautiful.
While those are more technical matters of inclusion of facts and clues, it’s the order of the reveals, the creation of suspense where we might have seen Hitch do it differently than Wilder. Hitchcock theory: if the viewer knows there’s a bomb in the box on the bus near the boy, then there is expectation and suspense, and a thrill greater than if the bomb just goes off and there is sudden surprise. In Witness, Wilder went for total shock and surprise (even though he shot a key scene both ways before deciding) leaving all the surprises for the end. If we were fed some of them earlier on, would the fun have been sucked away or the story hard to follow? In courtroom settings don’t we accept, even expect some big piece of evidence or a surprise witness? Wilder made the right call (like he needed my approval), and substituted different kinds of suspense by raising suspicion around the characters’ motives and concerns over Laughton’s health. The final act sets it all in order; no amount of game playing or rigging the system will succeed in the end. Rest assured, as Laughton says, “the scales of justice may tip one way or another but ultimately they balance out.”
for those interested, you can highlight the invisible text between these brackets to learn the secret of the movie: [ .........come now, is that really desirable?.....................................................]