January 29, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution
film Marlene Dietrich Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

These notes accompany screenings of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution on January 30, 31, and February 1 in Theater 3.

Samuel (Billy) Wilder (1906–2002) once expressed a wish that he could spend his 100th birthday at The Museum of Modern Art, but he didn’t quite make it. Born in Austria, Wilder worked in Weimar Berlin and Paris before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1934. He spent his first eight years in Hollywood as a writer, his most important films being Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch, Midnight for Mitchell Leisen, and Ball of Fire for Howard Hawks. Wilder first made a serious directorial impression with a string of film noir classics: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, the middle two being Oscar winners. Over time, the perversely comic side of his personality began to predominate, and it produced Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment (also an Oscar winner). These latter two films began a seven-film collaboration, over the course of more than two decades, with the great Jack Lemmon.

Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

Witness for the Prosecution owes much to The Paradine Case and other Alfred Hitchcock films, including the 1950 Marlene Dietrich vehicle Stage Fright. Hitchcock clearly seemed more comfortable with this kind of material, but Wilder winds up doing justice to both Dietrich (in one of her best postwar performances) and Agatha Christie. Much of Witness seems to echo Stage Fright, with Dietrich engaged in similar relationships with Richard Todd in Hitchcock’s film and Tyrone Power (in his last completed role) in Wilder’s. Dietrich had worked sympathetically with Wilder a decade earlier on A Foreign Affair, and Wilder enlivens the somewhat static Witness with a flashback evoking both Dietrich’s past and their earlier collaboration. The flashback is set in a German cabaret, where Marlene first meets Power—and loses half her pants in the process. (Dietrich had risen to international stardom nearly three decades earlier with her roles as a cabaret performer in Josef von Sternberg’s monumental masterpieces The Blue Angel and Morocco). Marlene’s performance in the outtake following the film is a minor revelation. Wilder is also heavily dependent on splendid performances from Charles Laughton (somewhat channeling his role in The Paradine Case and anticipating Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent), Elsa Lanchester, John Williams (another Hitchcock stalwart) and Power. Still, Wilder never quite seems to enervate the static, style-stifling courtroom drama or to fully display the brand of cynical humor that was to dominate his films immediately following Witness.

Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

Witness for the Prosecution. 1957. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder

In my 1974 monograph on Dietrich, I suggested that by 1957 “it became increasingly difficult to determine where the role playing left off and the real Dietrich began.” (Interestingly, when she reacted to the book, she didn’t question this presumption, but rather focused her objections on my listing the 17 films she made and denied making prior to The Blue Angel, claiming to be an inexperienced theater student in Berlin instead of already being a movie star.) She apparently turned down Wilder’s offer to play the wacky Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, thus leaving the opportunity open to Gloria Swanson. Dietrich might even have brought off a similar part in Wilder’s failed 1978 project Fedora, but now (approaching 80), she returned the script to Wilder with an angry scrawl: “How could you possibly think!…” I got off easier than Billy.

I expect to have more to say about Wilder, who was redeemed for auteurists through a late-career reassessment by Andrew Sarris. Wilder took a look at the dark side of America, and his films were appropriately bleak, albeit intermittently relieved with some spectacular humor, and he seemed to have an infectious love of movie-making.

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