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"You and I have a tendency towards corpulence," says Charles Laughton to Peter Ustinov in Spartacus. "Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?"
If the rumours are to be believed Charles Laughton was anything but "reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic". But if his mincing bitchiness almost led to him having his nose bloodied by Ernest Hemmingway, there's no disguising the fact this son of Scarborough was an acting heavyweight in every sense of the world. And if his work on screen never quite lived up to his storied stage career, at his best, he was right up there with Olivier, Richardson and the other English greats who swapped the West End for the West Coast.
As with Spartacus, Witness For The Prosecution saw Laughton surrounded by people capable of shining in his considerable shadow. Tyrone Power stars as Leonard Vole, a cad accused of murdering a rich widow. The story of the age, the lure of defending Vole is too much for Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton), the top defence lawyer who isn't going to let a little thing like a heart attack prevent him from hogging the limelight. If Robarts is confident of proving his man's innocence, he's as surprised as anyone when Vole's wife Christine (Dietrich) sides not with her spouse but with Torin Thatcher's prosecuting attorney.
Christie, Laughton, Dietrich, Power, Wilder - there was no shortage of talent involved in bringing Witness For The Prosectuion to the big screen. The big names aren't just to be found above the title, either. Sir Wilfrid's nurse Miss Plimsoll is played by Charles Laughton's long-suffering wife Elsa Lanchester. And if the woman playing Janet McKenzie looks familiar, that's because it's Una O'Connor, Lanchester's co-star in Bride Of Frankenstein who'd also appeared in the original Broadway version of Witness For The Prosecution.
Even amongst so many other great performances (Dietrich is particularly good as the ice-cold Christine), Laughton still stands out. Devouring the dialogue like a box of chocolates, the hefty one's Sir Wilfrid is right up there with his ripest creations. Indeed many would have rather seen him with his Oscar for this bravura turn than for his effete Henry VIII. For while Robarts is wonderful fun, the gravity and girth Laughton brings to the part means we're never able to forget that, for all the grandstanding, Sir Wilfrid is giving what might well be his last performance.
Larger than life as Laughton might be, he never threatens to wrestle Witness from the capable hands of Billy Wilder. As for what exactly the great writer-director brings to the piece, while a lot of people could have fashioned a sturdy court-room sage from Witness For The Prosecution, only he could transform it into a great comedy-drama.
Wilder's adaptation is guilty of being absolutely marvelous.
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