Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder's film "Witness for the Prosecution"A commenter going by the cybernom of Pascal Fervor has made some interesting and  provocative comments on my appreciation of the great film writer and director Billy Wilder. Fervor’s comments specifically refer to the thematic content of Wilder’s great mystery-comedy-drama Witness for the Prosecution. In my brief survey of Widler’s career I mentioned this film as a classic but said nothing specific about it.

Mr. Fervor’s comments afford an opportunity to talk further about this excellent motion picture which was produced in 1957 film and starred Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Elsa Lanchester. Set in London and dealing with a murder trial, Witness for the Prosecution is a strong comedy-drama with numerous plot twists and interesting characters.

First, I would suggest that everyone get a hold of a copy of this film, either the individual release or in the superb Wilder box set. Wilder is one of the greatest American filmmakers, and his movies are both entertaining and insightful. He has been characterized as cynical by most reviewers and critics, but as I demonstrate in my appreciation of Wilder and his work, his body of work is much more sophisticated than that simplistic characterization suggests, and much more laudable than the common opinion holds.

Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder's film "Witness for the Prosecution"Now, on to Witness, specifically. Pascal Fervor asked about my opinion of "the social commentary that may be inferred from" the film. As Mr. Fervor points out, however, it is difficult to discuss this matter without possibly giving away some plot points that would lessen the fun for those who have not yet seen the movie and choose to do so after reading the discussion. However, I think that we can dance around it a bit while still making our meaning clear.

Fervor astutely characterizes the film as an "amazingly successful demonstration of human gullibility," and ties this insight to my reevaluation of Wilder’s reputation. He offers his insight into Witness as further evidence for my point that Wilder was no cynic (As I wrote in my appreciation of Wilder, "Wilder knew that life does provide happy endings for those who live honestly, decently, and right. Wilder said, perhaps rather surprisingly, ‘Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.’ ”):

[W]orking with your own evaluation of Wilder, I think you implied there is good reason for us not be so convinced of his lauded and perhaps cultivated appearence of cynicism. Indeed, there is reason to suspect from his whole body of works that he just so happened to provide a measure of protection to his viewers from cynics by unmasking them and revealing a bit of their tactics.

Our gullibility — and maybe our guilty pleasure to be willingly gulled by masters — I think is the overarching theme and social commentary [in Wilder’s body of work, if I’m reading Fervor correctly here]. I think he employed a disarming measure here [in Witness] too. I don’t believe I’ve seen another film that has quite as many subtle puns as does this movie. Include in this two and maybe th
ree (Wilfred) character names. Double entendres R us.

I hope I’ve added to your appreciation for this classic. And that I haven’t written too much.

Mr. Fervor has indeed added to my appreciation of this film—though I would hardly have thought that possible, given my already great fondness for the movie—and no, he has not written too much, by any means.

Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder's film "Witness for the Prosecution"Mr. Fervor’s comments are spot-on. He is correct to point out that Wilder’s exposure of our vast human vulnerability to jiggery-pokery (to use John Dickson Carr’s evocative term) in this film fits perfectly with this filmmaker’s process in other movies. Like the scars on a particular character’s face, the motives and intentions of the various characters in the film are hidden from one another, and the misunderstandings multiply.

In this way, one could indeed see Witness for the Prosecution as expressing a certain cynicism, as the distance between people’s surface impressions and the reality behind them can be great indeed in the narrative. Yet this need not be cynical at all, and isn’t in this case. After all, the observation that human beings are always being bad and pretending to be good is simply an expression of the Christian idea of Original Sin. In addition, Wilder shows the great good in several characters, including the lead character of the narrative, barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, who rather flippantly risks his health and life in order to serve his client with a clear head. There is nothing cynical about that at all. On the contrary, it’s quite inspiring.

Although it may at first seem something of an odd duck among Wilder’s output, Witness for the Prosecution is indeed of a piece with his other work, thematically, and it’s interesting in how oblique a way this film expresses those themes. Looking at the theme of deception, one can see why Wilder was attracted to the source material–an Agatha Christie short story and play–and also why he had such great affection for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Charles Laughton in "Witness for the Prosecution" Witness for the Prosecution is rather unusual among Christie’s works in that it doesn’t include several suspects from whom to choose, as her novels and short stories tend to do. On the contrary, it is designed for the theater, and with immense skill and ingenuity. Nonetheless, as Mr. Fervor’s comments show in regard to Wilder’s adaptation, Christie’s narrative serves the same ends and provides the same pleasures as her other tales. In mystery fiction, we delight in being fooled by the author’s trickery, and more greatly in that justice is ultimately done as the detective character does eventually figure out whodunnit.

We delight in being fooled, I think, because we human beings simply enjoy reasoning. Mystery fiction (of the classical, puzzle kind) invites us to exercise our God-given capacity for reason, and challenges us to the utmost in that regard. And because we don’t solve the mystery, we more greatly appreciate the exercise.

After all, once the mystery is solved, the story is over, and our pleasure in ratiocination is finished in the present case. Hence, we actually enjoy being fooled, because it prolongs the highly pleasurable reasoning process until the last possible moment.

This is a rather different point from Mr. Fervor’s, although I think that the two are complementary. On a practical, psychological level, mystery fiction gives pleasure by exercising the mind. On a thematic, moral level, mystery fiction challenges us by showing how easily we can be fooled, how easily manipulated by cynical evildoers.

In both these ways, mystery fiction does much more than provide light entertainment—though it can do that as well. It has been popular over the ages because it works on a deep psychological level while affording easily accessible, surface enjoyment. All genre fiction has its benefits, and in Wilder’s film of Witness for the Prosecution, these rewards are at their apex.