Courtroom dramas never disappoint. They’re tense, gripping, dramatic and emotional and, more often than not, they grab you by the throat and they don’t let go until the very end. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and 12 Angry Men (1957) are two of the most iconic and greatest examples of this.
In Witness for the Prosecution (dir. Billy Wilder), Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a barrister recovering from a heart attack, who, despite the objections of his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), takes on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man accused of murdering a widow. Robarts believes he’s innocent and will do anything to prove it.
Adapted from the play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is obviously full of twists and surprises and is probably one of the best adaptations of a Christie story that’s ever been made. And as a massive fan myself, this Christie-Wilder combo (two of my favorite people ever!) is to die for. Despite this, however, and while I also love Marlene Dietrich’s incredible turn as Vole’s wife, it’s Charles Laughton who’s the stand-out, in my opinion. He delivers a stunning (and Oscar-nominated) performance as the brilliant, witty and ruthless barrister who will stop at nothing to prove Vole’s innocence and it’s mesmerizing to just watch him and see what he’s going to come up with next. The monocle test, particularly, is a masterpiece of a detail and a wondeful piece of characterization. One of the things I love about this film is the relationship between Robarts and Miss Plimsoll. Their scenes together often serve as the comic relief, but because it’s such a well balanced film, that doesn’t take away any of the tension from it.
12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet), I feel, is the more tense film of the two. In it, twelve jurors must decide on the fate of an 18-year-old boy accused of murdering his father. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who’s not convinced he’s guilty. Emotions are high as the twelve jurors debate, deliberate, argue and vote in that stuffy room in that courthouse on that hot New York City day.
I find 12 Angry Men (or rather 11 Angry Men and 1 Who’s Actually All Right) to be one of the most enthralling and fascinating films ever made. You can’t look away at any point. There’s something incredibly appealing about films shot in one location because you can do so much with it, and this is undoubtedly one of the best. It’s just wonderful to witness 12 Angry Men get more and more intense as it goes on. Those twelve people who’ve never met before are all stuck in the same room for hours on end with someone’s life in their hands. Those twelve people who are never mentioned by name, and are only referred to by their juror numbers, and whose background is provided only through professions and bits and pieces here and there – that marvellous dialogue! Lumet’s now legendary technique of lowering the camera as the film goes on only adds to the claustrophobia and the tension and, Sidney, it’s magnificent.
Both Wilfrid Robarts and Juror 8 are extraordinary central characters and they guide us through their respective films beautifully. I’ve always loved the ‘standing up for what you believe in’ motif in these types of films and both of them do just that, in their own way. Maybe we should all take notes.