Sunday, April 21, 2013

Witness For the Prosecution & Stage Fright

Although I only saw one film from the PFA's Hitchcock retrospective, I was able to see another of his films at Stanford last weekend.  The program was a double feature with works by Billy Wilder & Alfred Hitchcock.  Marlene Dietrich starred in both films.

Witness for the Prosecution starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power & Marlene Dietrich; directed by Billy Wilder; (1957)
Stage Fright starring Jane Wyman & Marlene Dietrich; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1950)

Witness for the Prosecution was based on an Agatha Christie play and short story of the same name (the short story added the article "The" to the title).

For the past few years, the Stanford has been showing films between 5 and 7 days per week with Mondays & Tuesdays typically dark.  I noticed in the current schedule, they are only screening films 4 days per week with Wednesday added to the dark days.  I guess business must be slow.  I went to the 7:30 PM screening of Witness for the Prosecution on Sunday, April 14.  Although there were a lot of empty seats, the Stanford had more people in it than I can remember at any of the screenings I have attended.

Stage Fright was not part of the PFA's three month Hitchcock program.


I'm not a big fan of Agatha Christie's works but mostly enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution in no small part due to Charles Laughton's performance.

On his first day back to work from an extended, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is approached by a potential client.  Robarts, a London barrister, is visited by a solicitor and his client, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power).  I always have to look up the difference between a barrister & solicitor.  Barristers are the ones who wear the wigs and argue in court.

There is significant circumstantial evidence pointing to Vole having killed a wealthy widow.  Vole says his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will provide his alibi.  Despite his ill health and the disapproval of his nurse (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife), Robarts is intrigued by Voles and accepts his case.  Robarts is not dissuaded after Mrs. Voles provides a less than enthusiastic alibi.

As the title of the film indicates, Christine ends up testifying for the prosecution and backs away from the alibi.  I won't give away the ending but there is a double surprise.

Dietrich's famous gams (technically only the left leg is visible) make a memorable appearance in a makeshift German cabaret in a scene where she meets Voles.  Laughton provides a lot of comedic relief in his interactions with his nurse which is only enhanced by the knowledge that the actors are husband and wife.  Marlene Dietrich, on the north side of her 50s when the film was made, looks radiant.  When you see a star like Dietrich, properly lit and filmed, you understand how Hollywood make their stars shine.

Witness for the Prosecution was an entertaining film.  I was more interested in Laughton & Dietrich's performances than the twists and turns in the plot but I'm glad I finally saw the film.


Jane Wyman was 32 years old when she made Stage Fright.  She was a couple years removed from her marriage to Ronald Reagan and had had three children at the time of filming.  Despite this, she looked much younger in Stage Fright.  Once again, the magic of movies.  That's the long way of saying I found Wyman to be very attractive in Stage Fright.

Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is on the run from the law as the film begins.  His friend Eve (Wyman) helps him escape London and stashes him at her father's seaside cottage (Alastair Sim in a great performance).  Cooper is suspected in the death of Charlotte Inwood's (Dietrich) husband.  Inwood is a celebrity singer/actress in London and Cooper is one of her chorus dancers.

The film leads the audience to believe Inwood murdered her husband but Hitchcock pulls, what I considered, a second-rate plot device in order to achieve a surprise ending.  Along the way, Eve takes an alias in order to be hired on temporarily as Eve's personal assistant.  She also begins a romance with the lead police detective (Michael Wilding) in order to get inside information about the investigation which she can feed to Cooper.  Eve starts the film as being in love (unrequitedly) with Cooper which explains her willingness to harbor a fugitive.  By the end of the film, Eve has feelings for the cop but is steadfast in her belief in Cooper's innocence.

Stage Fright is a delightful film full of Hitchcock's cheeky humor.  Not quite as dark as his classic suspense films, Stage Fright seems more like a comedy with some suspenseful elements.  Wyman gets to shine with disguises and accents and bantering with her father and the detective.  Dietrich gets to play herself or at least her stereotype - an aging diva with a voracious appetite for men which serves her well because she spits them out as soon as she is done with them.  She even gets to sing La Vie en Rose.

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