Film companies have always had to sell bad merchandise as aggressively as the good. Maybe more so. None had such integrity as to spare us dogs gone mangy. That scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy where George M. Cohan dictates the telegram warning his public not to attend a disappointing play he’s written was not a gesture studios would emulate, despite being presented here as a refreshingly honest exchange between artist and audience. It’s a rare and welcome event when merchandisers get product so good as to sell itself. Witness For The Prosecution was that kind of gift for United Artists. They actually gave away tickets (seven thousand in NYC) so as to generate what they knew would be positive word-of-mouth. The offer was floated on Times pages other than amusement oriented ones in hopes of luring viewers not otherwise inclined to follow movies. Just mail in your request and UA would reply with free ducats to see Billy Wilder’s newest. 20th Fox also took reservations by mail in 1958 (paid in advance) for its two-a-day hard ticket engagement of The Roots Of Heaven, a picture they doubtlessly smelled from as far away as its African locations (final loss: $2.6 million). Big investment in bad pictures, or at least unwanted ones, translated to bucks passed down the line. Distributors were forced to mislead exhibitors, who in turn hid out behind office doors as disgruntled patrons left (or walked out on) their shows. More (and more) people began staying home to watch better old movies on TV. Was anybody’s crystal ball working that year? Wilder’s latest had been The Spirit Of St. Louis. It lost an epic four million. He’d roll dice shooting Witness For The Prosecution in black-and-white. Exhibitors hated black-and-white. They felt color was their only hedge against television. Clever plotting and (especially) Witness’ sock finish compensated for monochrome lensing and brought out the showman in Billy (that’s him behind the studio cop denying Sam Goldwyn access to his rented stage where Witness was shot). This was a picture to be sold on its element of surprise. Unless you'd read Agatha Christie’s short story or saw it enacted on stage (very popular there), chances are you’d not guess the switcheroo laying in wait. Pledge boards were set up in theatre lobbies and beckoned outgoing customers to promise in writing not to spoil the finish for others. They even had one on the set while Witness was in production, as shown here with Hedda Hopper dutifully signing. For purposes of this post, I’ll keep the faith as well, but would note what fifty years and countless imitations have done to make 1958’s surprise less of one in 2008. Certainly those observant of, for instance, Richard Gere’s onscreen contretemps with varied clients, patients, and love interests will be all too aware of how writers since have unashamedly pillaged Agatha Christie.
Witness For The Prosecution had class and mass appeal. One instance found said markets at war with each other as well as United Artists. New York’s opening in February 1958 saw Witness day and date at Broadway’s Astor Theatre and the Plaza art-house on West 57th Street. UA figured longhairs buying coffee concessions would like it as much as popcorn munching thrill seekers attracted by straight-to-the-point advertising (Unmatched In A Half-Century Of Motion Picture Suspense!). Left in the cold Little Carnegie, itself a frequent venue for high profile art films, smelled rats and sued UA after discovering execs of that company held ownership in the Plaza. The Little Carnegie asked to negotiate for the art house run of "Witness For The Prosecution", but was not given the opportunity, said reports. UA brass no doubt figured these were profits too great to be so recklessly shared. Would the court require the company to open bidding for its product and force administrators to get rid of interests in the Plaza? This was the sort of discord raised to the surface when moneymaking shows revealed themselves. Then as now, producers sought to hoard as much potential coin as possible, one way or the other. Small wonder profit participants saw (and continue seeing) so little bounty. Billy Wilder was in for five percent of the gross (in addition to a flat $100,000). I wonder how much he actually collected. Witness For The Prosecution took $3.364 million in domestic rentals, with $3.5 million more from foreign receipts. Star in name only Tyrone Power (Charles Laughton actually had the lead) was hot off the success of The Eddy Duchin Story. His marquee strength and willingness to share laughs (Laughton) and laurels (Marlene Dietrich’s unexpected alter ego) went a long way toward making Witness the ensemble classic it became. Would Wilder’s intended Kirk Douglas have been so generous? Power regarded himself an actor first and a movie star (distant) second. He’s terrific here once you’re on to the game his character’s playing. It’s a performance best appreciated in hindsight with all the plot’s evidence digested. To watch him near bursting a blood vessel on the witness stand creates viewer anxiety beyond what the script intended, for latter-day knowing calls up imagery of Power’s collapse within a year doing Solomon and Sheba where exertions led to an on-set fatal heart attack. His Witness character looks for all the world to be rehearsing for that unfortunate event to come. It is a performance perhaps too convincing for his (and our) own good.
I wouldn’t call Wilder’s showmanship a gimmick because unlike hucksters of the Bill Castle variety, he actually had the goods and delivered on them. Besides, when a personage we trust like Charles Laughton goes on camera in the trailer to guarantee a series of climaxes that I defy you to guess (his words), we can be sure, as doubtlessly were audiences in 1958, that this will indeed be a courtroom thriller picking up where others leave off. Despite high-flying legal histrionics (and clearly objectionable ones under anyone’s rules of law), Witness For The Prosecution was sold as a legitimate meditation on questions of justice and guilt. Panels of experts representing the police and local bar, discussing finer points of Witness’ Old Bailey showdown, regaled Miami radio listeners and even took the stage in some theatres for post-verdict commentary. It was a tribute to Wilder’s (and author Christie’s) craftsmanship that audiences were willing to suspend their disbelief so completely as to take such forums seriously. For all its fun, Witness For The Prosecution furnishes seeming confirmation that, as Laughton’s character puts it, the scales of justice may tip one way or another, but ultimately they balance out, a Code mandated resolution already on its last legs when the picture was made and perhaps not one Wilder would have chosen had he addressed the subject ten years later. We’ve had sufficient inundation of murders gone unpunished in movies since as to make Witness For The Prosecution seem almost non-conformist. In 1958’s Code context, the ending was a surprise without being too surprising.
Do we take Wilder’s brilliance for granted? I appreciate him best when confronted with modern attempts at thrillers like Witness For The Prosecution, but that’s no fair criteria because there are no thrillers today remotely like Witness. Wilder films defy genre classification in any case. It’s belittling to label Witness as merely a thriller. How many such films have laughs as abundant amidst so much murder and betrayal? Nowadays it’s all darkness at the expense of wit. Wilder knew enough about the former (the real kind, unlike that cadged from old movies, or heaven help us, comic books) to recognize the value of mining the latter where he could find it. That’s a facility he shared with other great directors of his generation. I happened to watch John Ford's The Searchers last night and noted again comic asides throughout. Yes, Ford’s humor was of a broader sort, but would his drama play so well minus the relief? Funereal frontiers are the only ones we’ve crossed in the last forty years it seems. No wonder westerns died. Of course, any funeral Wilder stages would have its share of laughs. He lifted weights off Christie's serious approach to Witness For The Prosecution as a matter of policy, reversing that procedure in the following year's Some Like It Hot by putting real menace in the way of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ cross-dressing antics. I’m amazed at what Wilder and Laughton do with simple props on a single set in Witness For The Prosecution. Cigars, monocles, a window shade, thermos bottle, a cane to conceal cigars --- was any of this Agatha Christie’s invention? Without having read her story, I’m guessing not (now watch someone correct me and pull down my reverence for Billy a notch or two). Someone wrote that Laughton received only $75,000 to do Witness against Tyrone Power’s $300,000. I don’t disdain Power for collecting such cumulative reward for his twenty years of unbroken boxoffice, and I’d venture Laughton’s love of the craft made whatever payment he received seem (to him) more than equitable. What’s inarguable here is that at no time in film history was $75,000 better spent. I even ran Laughton’s trailer speech over and over just so he could de-fy me again and again (if you have this DVD, please get it out and watch a master turn his hand to promotion). What a joy it must have been for Laughton to seize a part so beautifully written, and who but Wilder could have made it possible? I looked at imdb. The actor only had seven feature credits in the whole of the fifties. Were we then so rich in performing talent as to excuse such neglect? Wilder’s appreciation of his player’s screen histories made him second to none at casting. Look at the referential placement of George Raft, Pat O’ Brien, and Joe E. Brown in Some Like It Hot. Wilder was confident we’d know them well from late shows at home and called upon that immediate recognition to lend his twenties story the roar of so many classics these people had done before. Playing upon images associated with Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Power made Witness For The Prosecution a kind of career summation for all three. For Wilder and these iconic players, it is a lasting monument.