Thursday, 3 November 2016

Witness for Wilder

I haven’t blogged for a while, and this isn’t a full post.  For anyone who is interested, among other things I’ve been working on a new fact-based feature for Scott Free and BBC Films, and two new TV shows, one for Corona Television and the BBC, and one for Black Label Media and ABC Signature in the US.  More on all of that, hopefully, to follow, which will invariably result in a greater blogput (I blog when I plug).

In the meantime, I wanted to share the most wonderful experience I had this morning, reading the full screenplay for Billy Wilder and Kurnitz’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short story and play “Witness For The Prosecution”.

I am a massive Wilder fan – Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, and of course Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are all gems that retain incredible freshness today.  I’ve never even got to Ace In The Hole, The Lost Weekend or Love In The Afternoon.  Such treats await.

And “Witness” keeps on coming up on lists of Greatest Films Ever but somehow it had always evaded me.  I could never catch it on TV and, well, I’m too stingy to fork out for the DVD.  So, in a morally dubious move (I’m a newly minted WGGB member, after all) I read the screenplay online for free.

What a treat.  Just go and read it, that’s all.  The plot is pure Christie, up there with her best.  The last ten pages are vintage – “more twists than a pigs’ tail” according to one reviewer – and show how she vastly improved her original ending between the short story and the play.  There can always be one more twist.

But the execution is all Wilder.  Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich were given top billing but Wilder smartly and brilliantly builds his screenplay, and his film, around the aging defence barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts, played by Charles Laughton in Oscar-nominated form.  Wilder gives him a heart condition and an irritating nurse absent in the original, both of which add to the humour, the emotion and even the suspense of the outcome.  And of course it is this barrister – much like Edward G Robinson’s claims investigator in Double Indemnity, like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men – who is actively tracking down the truth, always one step off the pace, and who must, at the death, try to make sense of an extraordinary situation.  As so often in court room dramas (as in one I’m writing at the moment), the protagonist is not the defendant.

So read the script and enjoy the beautiful construction of every scene.  Roberts only hears about the case in the first place because he wants to cadge a cigar off the solicitor Mayhew.  There are two extended flashbacks, each perfectly played and both with classic Wilder cute-meets.  Marlene’s entrance, delayed until page 45 (could you get away with that these days?) is exquisite: “That won’t be necessary”.  The interplay between Roberts and his nurse Miss Plimsoll (that name) is a delight (“If I’d known how much you talked I would never have come out of my coma”) and proves that comedy and drama can readily coexist, often to the mutual benefit of the other.  Just read it, preferably with a glass of whisky and a cigar. 

And now I must watch the film (or wait for Ben Affleck’s version).  Although perhaps, like the fan of the novel who dreads the adaptation, having fallen in love with the screenplay I fear the movie can never live up to it.

But then again, it’s Billy Wilder.


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