Classic Courtroom Dramas: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), & Anatomy of A Murder (1959)

I am continuing the celebration of classic films this month with this double film review post. American legal dramas of the 1950s were in the league of their own, and, apart from the two films I will discuss below, there were also such films as Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (1954) & Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

Witness for the Prosecution [1957]★★★★1/2

This is a mystery legal drama directed by Billy Wilder (The Apartment (1960)) and based on Agatha Christie’s theatrical play. Charles Laughton plays eminent British barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts, whose declining health prevents him from participating in major criminal trials, but who, nevertheless, reluctantly agrees to take on a very strange murder case. Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering his female acquaintance who, quite unexpectedly, left him a large inheritance. But, did Vole actually murder her or was her tragic death the result of a burglary gone wrong? Vole’s enigmatic German wife, played by Marlene Dietrich, and the murdered woman’s housekeeper give evidence in court, as Sir Wilfrid, acting for the defence, soon finds that his hands are more than full as a result of all confusing details emerging in this case. Although initially rather “slow-burn”, this film finally has so many “mind-blowing” twists it can put to shame many modern productions. Moreover, its use of humour, brilliant acting and intriguing flashbacks all mean that the story is as engrossing as its characters are mesmerising to watch.

One curiosity about Witness for the Prosecution is that it provides some insight into the British legal system and its operation. The film opens by introducing us to barristers’ chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, and I was genuinely surprised by how funny the film purports to be when it centres on the relationship between Sir Wilfried and his nurse, played by Elsa Lanchester. The barrister is refusing to be “baby-sat” after his heart-attack and the persistent nurse does all that is possible to make him follow a very strict “health regime”.

Even if some elements can be guessed in the case presented, it is impossible to guess everything, and the film will undoubtedly provide many surprises in a fashion of an initially “slow-moving” roller-coaster that eventually gains much speed and finally delivers one unforgettable, unimaginable and exhilarating experience. The film twists the very concept of a legal prosecution/defence, as well as what it means to be a witness at trial. It is clever enough, but, possibly, is being too clever for its own good. The film could as well have limited its “twists” at the end without losing any elements of a surprise. Near the end, Witness for the Prosecution simply piles up too many twists and does so too fast.

Witness for the Prosecution is a film worthy of all its accolades. With actors giving their very best, considerate story-telling, unexpected humour and with its many “mind-blowing” surprises, the film is easily one of the best legal dramas I have ever seen and probably the most interesting one when it comes to the conclusion.

Anatomy of a Murder [1959]★★★★

James Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a small town attorney, who takes on a complicated case involving a murder of a man under “revenge” circumstances. Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) shot and killed Barney Quill after the latter allegedly raped and beaten his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Unprecedently, Paul Biegler decides to go for the defence of temporary insanity for his client and his path is less than smooth because the prosecution is represented by the town’s “big guns” and his client already has “a history of violence”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a legal drama “through and through”. There are plenty in this film on the intricacies of seeking justice and fighting for clients in the US. From the moment the jury is sworn in to the voicing of the final verdict, we are taken through every imaginable legal “obstacle” in a case like this, as Biegler, played by Stewart, tries every possible avenue for his client, who is sometimes rather uncooperative. We may be reminded of such sayings as “trials do not concern themselves with truth, but with an impression of truth” and “the jury is a group of unqualified people gathered to decide the unknown”. What is and is not relevant to the case becomes hotly debated, and the defendant even asks one question everyone at one point or another always wanted to know an answer to: “How a jury could disregard what they have already heard?

The real revelation here is probably the wife of the man – Laura, played beautifully by Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses (1962)), and Stewart himself makes a convincingly sympathetic lawyer. As a result of the sensitive issues discussed in the film, it will pair well with another legal film that discusses rape – The Accused (1988) with Jodie Foster, even because of the historical contrast it provides when it comes to discussing women in criminal cases involving rape.

Anatomy of a Murder is based on real events, well-acted and thematically important, but since I found the topic slightly dry, some scenes a bit tedious and the choice of a jazz soundtrack odd and more than out of place, I enjoyed the film less than Witness for the Prosecution and hence my lower score.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl-Edward says:

    I have seen both films a number of times, and have on each occasion, come to the same conclusions about them: Ty Power, an actor I have always admired, is here miscast. The character is, after all, supposed to be an Englishman. The ending of the play has a greater impact, with the final line spoken by Vole’s wife: ‘Guilty, my lord.’

    ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ is an excellent book, but the film has several flaws, notably the casting of Jimmy Stewart as Biegler, and the obtrusive – and unsuitable – Ellington score. The pace is for the most part too slow for a story of this kind. Eve Arden is Eve Arden, but Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick are superb. The ending is both visually and emotionally satisfying.


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Great thoughts, thanks very much for sharing! Tyrone Power does feel miscast and I really want to see the original play now!

      Although I haven’t read the book Anatomy of a Murder, now I also think that it must be better. I kept thinking while watching the film that there would be something “happening”, but there was never anything, and felt that all the jazz was quite needless, a “gimmick” of some sorts even introduced to make the film “more interesting”. I know, for example, that jazz was used in Antonioni’s La Notte, a film released just two years after Anatomy and, there, jazz really had something unique to say about the situation unfolding. It never felt out of place. And, I also agree with you about the slow pace of Anatomy.


  2. mistermuse says:

    I agree with you lower score for ANATOMY OF A MURDER. It’s interesting on first viewing but, in my opinion, doesn’t bear repeated viewing as well as WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John Charet says:

    Great post 🙂 Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is very good, but Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is a total masterpiece 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ruth says:

    Hi Diana! Despite working in the legal sector of a big company, I actually don’t watch too many legal dramas. There are some good ones obviously, and I should check out Anatomy of a Murder as I like the director and James Stewart!

    Liked by 1 person

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