I love movies where nothing really worthy happens until the very end, where a huge twist validates the near-boredom felt for the entire film. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is one of these films. At least, it almost was, until the twist at the end was twice, thrice turned into a baffle of confusion. Billy Wilder and scriptwriter Harry Kurnitz obviously underestimated the power of the first shocking revelation of Tyrone Power’s guilt and Marlene Dietrich’s complicity in his crime.
If Power’s illicit affair with a bland brunette and his subsequent murder were a result of studio interference (even as late as 1957), then it is surely one example of censorship not making a film more exciting through suggestion. Although the Hays Code aimed at toning down films and giving them an angelic aura of Christian family values, many directors managed to make films effortlessly scandalous by suggestion – not discernable from the script. Hitchcock famously did this in North By Northwest (and surely countless other films) with the train entering the tunnel. The Postman Always Rings Twice also had sneakily sexy moments, as did The Big Sleep, The Big Steal (the 1949 version starring the fabulous Jane Greer) and Double Indemnity. These directors were partaking in what Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood has labelled “figurative literalness,” or otherwise, the only compliant way “to smuggle impure thoughts and deeds onto the Hollywood screen.” In such films, the viewer is left to their own imagination, rather than the descriptive limitations of a censored director – and often, free to think plenty of impure thoughts.
In Witness for the Prosecution, it makes sense that Wilder would have been forced by the code into punishing his callous murderer. In Agatha Christie’s original novel, there was only one twist, and ended with Christine’s confession. But this final twist made Dietrich, who turned into an out-of-character romantic, into a boring and jealous wife. So, cut the last three minutes or so, stop watching when Power reveals his guilt and Dietrich exposes their clever double-act. According to Doherty, “vice energized compliant formats” – in this case, the courtroom drama. The revelation of vice certainly energized Witness for the Prosecution, but the jump to assuage for marital sins through death just ruined the whole thing.