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Your January 2014 RMC2 Results Are In!

TAGLINE: Unmatched…in a half century of motion picture suspense!

PIZZA: Big Mama and Big Papa


COOL DIALOGUE: Brogan-Moore: “Touching, isn’t it? The way he counts on his wife.” Wilfred: “Yes. Like a drowning man clutching at a razor blade.”



You can feel safe that I won’t be giving anything away. I try never to do that anyway, though I’ll sometimes give you a Spoiler Alert. But if it pleases the court, I will say this; you know how there are some movies that you forget just how great they are? This is one. Please watch this movie. Not only am I petitioning you, but I’m also begging you. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is guilty of being one of my favorite movies.



The crime we are talking about is a felony, for if you have never seen WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), you will be charged with one count of first degree cinemacide. I’ll try to be brief as I outline the case.

First, the writing. WFTP was written by Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus, adapted from the Agatha Christie play, which itself was based on her short story. We all know Christie was an amazing mystery writer. Some, myself included, credit her for popularizing the “One Location” mystery with her unbeatable story/play/masterpiece AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. It’s a genre more popular today than ever.


The acting. Charles Laughton as barrister Wilfred stuns me with his talents here, including his side-of-the mouth quip delivery system. He really does make Sir Wilfred one of filmdom’s most fun characters. I mean, has there ever been a character so full of contempt yet so lovable? Yes, I love Laughton in this movie, but everyone’s great. John Williams (no no, not THAT one) is fun to see, with his stoic British demeanor. And, of course, the unstoppable Marlene Dietrich, in all her Germanic Life is a Cabaret glory as Christine, the accused’s wife. Dietrich, who incidentally was the one who brought the project to Wilder, is a symbol of fierce independence; Christine is a solid soul who stands strong in all situations, stronger than her war-torn Berlin living quarters did.


The directing. Billy Wilder. Gosh. He’s made so many of my Top 100 films - THE APARTMENT, THE LOST WEEKEND, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, STALAG 17, ACE IN THE HOLE and SUNSET BLVD (yes, I do like SOME LIKE IT HOT and others, but I like these a whole lot more). This is the 5th Wilder movie screened at RMC (AVANTI – 2010, A FOREIGN AFFAIR – 2009, STALAG 17 – 2006, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES – 2000).

Next, I will provide evidence of the thoroughly appealing tone of the movie. It’s kind of amusing, me writing this review while on a looooong break in a Jury Room in Los Angeles, waiting to be called or not called. As I watch the judge in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION on my laptop, I’m not sure I agree with the movie’s tagline of “Unmatched…in a half century of motion picture suspense!” Sure, WFTP is a courtroom drama/mystery, but even better, it’s a comedy. So disregard taglines and what Wikipedia says. WFTP is extremely funny. Hilarious funny. But if your idea of funny is watching Adam Sandler high-five a walrus, this may not be your movie. But who am I to judge?

And lastly, an array of exemplary characters, all smart, funny and wonderfully realized. It’s that look Sir Wilfred gives his nurse Miss Plimsoll in the opening scene, on the way back from his hospital visit as she chatters away. And if the look isn’t enough, he tells her “If I knew how much you talked, I wouldn’t have come out of my coma.” Within seconds, we learn this will be no ordinary courtroom thriller. This movie will be funny, too, which is rarely an easy balancing act. But like Nat King Cole or Eddie Van Halen, Billy Wilder just makes it all look so easy, so effortless.

But there are radical and risky things too. How many movies can get away with a 37 minute courtroom trial? Well, this one does, and it’s plot-driven and entertaining. Actually, about an hour of this movie takes place in the courtroom, and the other hour, with a few exceptions, takes place in law offices. And yes, I timed it out myself. Seriously, there is not 30 seconds of this movie where there’s nothing fun going on, and it’s not limited to sharp patter, as when Wilfred uses the reflection of his monocle as a makeshift interrogation lamp on the accused. Or witness the execution of a shot where the chief inspector walks from the back of the cavernous courtroom to the front. Wilder’s camera stays at the doorway, making us wait in real time for the man to reach the witness stand.

Another thing I love is how Wilder & Co. take things as mundane as eggbeaters and silly hats and make them into important plot points.


Sir Wilfred has been in the hospital for two months and is itching to bring his corpulent cynical self back for one last case. You have to love how ornery he is, and how no one in his employ pays any mind. They’re all there to annoy him, and he’s there to annoy them, yet no one is annoyed, except for:

Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s real wife/alleged beard) as Miss Plimsoll. I imagine they had a lot of fun playing these bickersons. “If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you.”

Enter the specious Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power, in his last role), accused of murdering Mrs. French, a dowager who befriended Vole and added him to her will. This is just what Wilfred’s doctor didn’t order! Of course Wilfred wants this juicy case, having been relegated to a “diet of bland civil suits.” Mrs. French’s housekeeper Janet (Una O’Connor, fabulous here, her last movie as well) adds even more color to an already full spectrum.

We all love twists and turns, especially in courtroom stories (I’ve even written one myself), and WFTP has no shortage of them. Wilfred is even aware that something’s not right about this case, the same way Edward G. Robinson’s character Keys has his “little man” who would “tie knots in his stomach” when something wasn’t kosher in another great Wilder film that’s a must-see, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. (Sorry for that run-on sentence).


Una O'Connor as Janet
So those are the facts of my case. Additionally, please witness how Wilder takes a dramatically rich court case and frills it up with amusement; Plimsoll’s watch going off to remind Wilfred to take his pill. The use of said pills as a device for the passing of time. The comedic tête-à-tête between Wilfred and the prosecutor. The nasty demeanor of Janet, right down to the stink-eye she tosses Vole. The obtrusive microphone Janet doesn’t want to use. This movie has more flavor than Starburst.

I’m halfway through reading the play, out of curiosity regarding how much was Agatha Christie. It seems she was responsible for most of the actual plot points and almost all the characters, while Wilder & Co. did the lion’s share of the dialogue. I know they also added Sir Wilfred’s heart problem, the Plimsoll character, and the cigars and brandy.

The Prosecution rests.

By the way, the case I just sat on in Los Angeles? We found the defendant not guilty.


CRISIS IN MORALITY – This gem is brought to us by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). It’s about the sickness in our society, “Degradation on every level.” It’s “the moral decay of the people” that will make America die. This documentary short is filled with quotes and statistics that seem either out of context or just plain made up. “Gang wars (not Bloods and Crips) - groups of teens who, in two more years, will be arrested in the rate of 1 million per year. Crime is one of the symptoms of the disease of sin in the heart.” Here’s another stat – “Out of 8000 teenagers who passed through the juvenile system, only 42 regularly attended Sunday school.” They also claim that nearly 20% of births in Los Angeles are illegitimate, 70% pregnant are Junior High School age.

And then they say “how tragic it is that we have taken the Bible out of the classroom. They actually say, with anger, that it’s “unconstitutional.”

Then there’s other sins like divorce, narcotics, gambling, alcoholism, profanity and obscenity and immorality (sex). All the things people love. Way to win over people, BIOLA!

BABYSITTER’S GUIDE – What’s odd about this one is that it’s from 1975. Usually these films go back to the 50s, sometimes even earlier. It starts with a scare; a headline screaming “Search for missing Babysitter.” Then the short tells prospective sitters to do things like to call the police if the person who calls you to sit can’t be found in the phonebook. They advise seeing the people you’re sitting for for a preliminary visit; bring a pad (preferably with a bunny on it) to take down the numbers for police, etc. And they tell you to bring a flashlight, but they don’t say why. Maybe to cram for a gyno test. In the course of a single night, our sweet babysitter puts a Band-aid on one kid’s finger, wipes the gook off the other kid’s mouth (who was left in the bathroom unattended), writes the license number of a persistent guy who wants to give her a ride, and yanks the kids out of the house when there’s a fire. Yipes! Good thing she saw this film so she knew to do that.

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