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Category Archives: Suspense

Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense

 

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Alien (1979) – A Film Noir/Thriller in Space

220px-Alien_movie_posterI recently watched The Horror of Dracula (1958) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I watched it with my cousin, who hasn’t been exposed to too many classic films, and he really enjoyed it. But afterwards, he said that if I liked that sort of thing, I should really watch Alien. I must confess I was skeptical. Alien is a science fiction film and I don’t generally like science fiction. However, I figured I might as well try it, especially since I had once been skeptical about classic horror films and now love the genre.

And Alien does have a touch of the classic horror about it. James Cameron, when he made the sequel, Aliens, said that he was going for more terror, whereas the original is more horror. And Alien, I discovered, is not a typical science fiction film. It’s more like a film noir/thriller that happens to be set in space. It is truly worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, though perhaps with a little more terror.

Alien doesn’t have a complex plot and what is there is pretty patchy, but that’s not really the point of the film. There are seven people on a cargo spaceship returning to earth. What it carries is not important. Who these people are or what their past is is not important. What kind of world has produced this ship is not important; the film feels both futuristic and contemporary. They are all anxious to get back to earth, but they pick up an unknown signal from a planet and protocol dictates that they investigate. They do so and while on the planet, an alien life form attaches itself to the face of one of the members. Against protocol, they bring him on board ship, with the alien still attached.

Alien attached to actor John Hurt's face

Alien attached to actor John Hurt’s face

The alien detaches itself from his face and the crew think they are in the clear. But it turns out that the alien has only used the man as an incubator and soon a new alien comes bursting out of his stomach in all its glory. It proceeds to terrorize and pick off the remaining crew while they try to hunt it through the ship’s dark, shadowy, claustrophobic corridors and air shafts.

The trouble is they are not soldiers (my sister called them glorified truck drivers, essentially) and the alien, instead of having blood, has corrosive acid flowing in its veins that can eat through layers of ship. It also grows much larger than when it originally pops out of the guys stomach.

The film is a masterpiece of suspense. From the moment the film begins, from the moment we first see the credits, and hear the music by Jerry Goldsmith, we are holding your breath, expecting something to happen at any time. As the credits continue the camera moves around the grimy ship, which looks deserted, and the audience is wondering if a catastrophe has already occurred.

The crew

John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm

It is not obvious, at the beginning of the film, who the main protagonist is going to be. All seven characters are introduced with roughly equal screen time and importance. There is the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the Science Officer, Ashe (Ian Holm), the Warrant Officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the two engineers, Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto), and Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). But when the captain, Dallas, and the Science Officer, Ashe, make the decision to override Ripley’s warnings about bringing the alien on board, Ripley slowly emerges as the one we care most about.

There is also an adorable cat named Jones, or Jonesey. I was rooting for this cat to survive from the very beginning and was in a constant anxiety that we would lose him (for fellow cat lovers, the cats survives).

Much has been said about the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and the symbolism in the film regarding how the alien symbolically commits a form of rape (on a man) and impregnates him, with the alien bursting forth in violent birth. However, what really stood out to me was the characters’ isolation from each other. Here are people who have been on the same ship for months, perhaps years (they’ve been in stasis for much of the journey, though) and they don’t seem to particularly care for each other. There is no warmth in the film, no connection between them. The warmest relationship is between Ripley and the cat, Jones.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Jones

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Jones

There is a lot of tension, admittedly. Ripley is deeply distrustful of Ashe and his motivations and decisions. She also attempts to get Dallas to use his authority to override Ashe, but Dallas rather apathetically says that Ashe is in charge of science on this journey and he can’t do anything.

That apathy really struck me. Dallas, in particular, seems to suffer from it. These people just want to get home and even when the alien is running about their ship, there is still a sense of unreality, as if they cannot believe this is happening to them. Dallas seems an insouciant captain. Ashe wants to study the alien and is at odds with Ripley, the only person who demonstrates any mental sharpness (for those who don’t mind a few more spoilers, Ashe turns out to be an android who has been programmed by the nameless “The Company” they work for to bring home this kind of alien life form for study, even at the cost of the crew).

I have to believe that the director, Ridley Scott, meant for the crew to come off disconnectedly. It certainly makes for a great story, but is a disturbing representation of humanity. The story could be told thus: on the ship there is apathy, disunity. A threat comes and they can’t pull together to defeat it. Instead, they are picked off, pulled apart. In the end (more spoilers) it is only one individual who can survive. Only alone, does Ripley make it.

Ripley and the Alien

Ripley and the alien

There is a rather bleak moment after Kane has died, after the alien jumps out from his stomach. The crew is in shock, while Dallas is about to eject Kane’s wrapped body into space. He asks expressionlessly if anyone wants to say anything (usually it is a captain’s job to say something). No one says a word and Kane’s body is released from the ship. That’s it. It’s such a bleak moment because no one mourns him, there’s not even music to mourn him. You can see they’re still in shock, but you can also see they are thinking about what is going to happen to them. He’s just dead and that’s the end of him.

That sense of isolation is a very noirish element. The crew is made up of a bunch of misfits, which actually make sense. The only kind of person who would volunteer for a regular job where the journey is so long you stay in stasis for ten months is bound to be a bit of a misfit.

But what really makes the movie so thrilling is the suspense. Crew members walk down dark, shadowy corridors looking for the alien, while the audience waits, heart pounding, knowing the alien is going to get them, but not sure when or how. Some people have commented that it’s a bit like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

The Alien

The alien

But despite the isolation in Alien, you do still root for Ripley (though I was completely expecting everyone else to die and probably would have been disappointed if they hadn’t – thus Alien feeds our more ghoulish nature). Her character is warmed up by her affection for Jones and because she is the only one who is not either insouciant or in blind terror. She’s a survivor who consistently makes smart decisions…and she goes out of her way to save the cat.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Horror, Science Fiction, Suspense

 

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Evil Amidst Innocence

220px-Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Shadow_of_a_DoubtAlfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and I have seen and enjoyed many of his movies. However, my personal favorite – and reportedly his, too – is Shadow of a Doubt, which I believe is also his most human and relatable.

When Alfred Hitchcock first left England to make movies in America, many of his early American movies were still set in England: Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but he wanted this movie to be more uniquely American in setting. He chose as his location Santa Rosa, California, and he did much of his shooting on location.

At the center of Shadow of a Doubt is the evil that comes to an innocent small town and an innocent family. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is named after her mother’s much loved younger brother, Uncle Charlie or Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). She feels that they are extremely close, because of their names, but also because of how they think and feel. She likes to say that they are like twins. The movie begins with Charlie feeling like the family has gotten into a dull rut and what they need is Uncle Charlie to visit them. When Uncle Charlie does come unexpectedly, she and her entire family are thrilled and excited, especially her mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge).

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

What they do not realize is that Uncle Charlie’s money (he is described as being “in business”) has actually been acquired through murder. He is a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer, and he is on the run from the police and hiding out at their home. Hitchcock is simply masterful in how he builds his movie. Not long after he arrives, Charlie begins to suspect her uncle in some way and soon she figures out the truth. It is this growing of Charlie’s suspicions and Uncle Charlie’s realizations of her suspicions and how the two of them deal with each other that provides the tension. And Charlie’s realization that not only is her uncle a serial killer, but he’s quite willing to kill her, too, which is not at all the same thing as being willing to kill a random stranger.

What I love about this film is how infinitely relatable it is. It’s not glamorous, like many of Hitchcock’s other films. There are no gangs, international espionage, spies, thefts of priceless jewelry, epic chases, women running about in impossibly gorgeous clothing (I’m thinking, here, of Grace Kelly). The people in it are people we can imagine knowing or being like, people we might even have met.

We don’t dress like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant isn’t going to walk into our lives, but we can understand a family member – someone we assume we can trust – and we can imagine ourselves reacting to that situation. Would we tell our mother that her favorite brother is a serial killer; would we think our family would believe us? We can all imagine ourselves being at a loss trying to deal with this situation.

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

I think what Shadow of a Doubt taps into is how little ordinary people expect to encounter evil. We read about it and people in the movies always seem awfully eager to suspect and discover crime and conspiracy, but in real life we don’t really anticipate encountering that, especially in our own family. We generally expect to find real life somewhat prosaic.

I think it is also significant that it was made in 1943, during WWII. There is a sense of lost innocence for Charlie, having encountered this terrible evil that is in her uncle. He was originally a romantic figure for her, presumably emblematic of the world outside her safe and ordinary existence, but his view of the world is that it is a “sty,” an ugly place so ugly that it doesn’t matter what happens in it, even murder. He is the one to shatter her peaceful, sheltered and innocent view of life. He is like the Nazis horrifying the world with unimagined evil. It is partially a coming of age story for Charlie.

The cast is marvelous (Hitchcock always did have marvelous casts). Teresa Wright had recently enjoyed great success in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is perfect as Charlie: innocent, but intelligent, grappling with the enormity of what she has learned, but not backing down. Joseph Cotten usually played nice guys, but he is excellent as Uncle Charlie, displaying charm, but always with hidden menace. Patricia Collinge is Charlie’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing the tension between Charlie and Uncle Charlie and is so blinded by her love of her brother, as if he represented everything good about life to her: her happy childhood, her young dreams and hopes. Henry Travers (known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) is her father, a banker who relaxes by discussing murder mysteries and murder methods with his friend, Herb (Hume Cronyn), which provides a great deal of the whimsical humor in the film.

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Uncle Charlie doesn’t like to be photographed – Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten

There is also a standout performance by Edna May Wonacott as Charlie’s sister, Ann. She is a bookworm who doesn’t quite like Uncle Charlie but never really knows why or even thinks about it. There are also two detectives lurking about (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford), who think Uncle Charlie might be the Merry Widow Murderer, and are cultivating the acquaintance of Ann and Charlie.

One of Hitchcock’s best and by far my favorite of his films. Suspenseful, but also more character driven then his usual movies. He tries to explore Uncle Charlie’s motivations and Charlie’s coming of age is a definite departure for Hitchcock. Coupled with his emphasis on the ordinary rather than extraordinary, it is a highly compelling, relatable, human, and even endearing story. It absolutely captured my imagination.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Suspense

 

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