Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats 2: Stubbornly Clinging to This Awful Title: Witness for the Prosecution and Kiss Me, Stupid

Hey, everybody, I'm back, and I have more "Wilder" oats to sow. As I mentioned last week, Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors and I recently decided that I needed to see more of his films. Luckily, there's a wealth of them on Netflix Instant, including some of his best work.

Witness for the Prosecution
, by Billy Wilder, 1957

One of my favorite things about Witness for the Prosecution was the end credits. And no, not because the movie was over. What I liked was that a card came up on the screen that politely advised outgoing cinema-goers to not spoil the twist ending for anyone. I wonder if it worked?

Witness for the Prosecution isn't one of Wilder's screwball comedies, in fact it's an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play. It's something more along the lines of Ace in the Hole, a drama with some comedic moments balancing out some very dark moments. He was very good at walking that line and finding the necessary balance between the two.

Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a highly respected barrister brought out of retirement to defend a man (Tyrone Power) of the murder of an old woman. Making the case more difficult is the man's wife (Marlene Dietrich) who is uncooperative and clearly hiding something, or perhaps many things. Robarts deduces that she is the key to finding the truth of this case, as she takes the witness stand against her husband.

Laughton's Robarts is a really great character. He puts himself through a lot of physical and mental stress when he's defending someone. He's large and unhealthy, and when he's working, he drinks and smokes a bunch and pops heart pills like crazy, so the stress of this trial could very well kill him. He's actually quite loveable, despite his self destructive tendencies. They even make him kind of heroic, like 'this is how I am while I'm working, but I'm still going to see this trial through even if it does me in.' Robarts also has a great repartee with his nurse (played by Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester), trying to avoid her throughout. Most of the light moments come from the two of them.

Marlene Dietrich is excellent too. I don't want to say too much about her, because many of the film's twist and turns are placed on her shoulders, so I'll just leave it at that.

Witness for the Prosecution is one of Wilder's strongest films, and that's saying quite a bit. The word 'cynical' gets thrown around a lot in reference to Wilder, and this is no exception. His cynicism has always worked in his favor, though. Most of his films have that edge. It's weird, I don't generally like my cynical side, and try to avoid letting it loose, but I sure enjoy his.

Kiss Me, Stupid
, by Billy Wilder, 1964

I'm not much for the crooners, so I really never felt much need to watch any of the movies featuring the Rat Pack guys. The only movie I think I've ever seen with one of those guys is Scorsese's The King of Comedy with Jerry Lewis. I'm not even sure if that counts. Anyway, if it weren't for Billy Wilder, I don't think I ever would have given a Dean Martin movie a shot, but as expected with Wilder, Kiss Me, Stupid is smart, funny, and edgy for its time.

Dean Martin stars as himself, though just referred to as "Dino" throughout. Like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, he's playing a broadly exaggerated version of the way the public perceives him. You know, drunken and lecherous. He's pretty gross in this movie, but I always assumed he was pretty gross in real life too, so I don't know how exaggerated it is. I just assume there was some self awareness going into his performance.

Anyway, Dean Martin drives through a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Climax, Nevada (get it?). When a couple of struggling songwriters named Orville and Barney (Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond) stumble across him, they concoct a plan to strand Dino there overnight so they can pitch him their songs. Dino refuses to deal with them because he's horny, and he hears good things about Orville's wife (HINT HINT). Orville understands the implied trade, a night with his wife for a song, but can't bring himself to sell her out like that (plus he's worried that she, a HUGE Dino fan, just might say yes). So they do the right (?) thing and instead of prostituting Orville's wife, they get her out of the house and hire an actual prostitute named Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pretend to be her. All sorts of screwball scenarios then ensue as they try to keep the ruse going.

This isn't one of my favorite Billy Wilder movies, but I still liked it. Ray Walston played things a little too big. He mugs a lot for the camera. I read that Orville was supposed to be played by Jack Lemmon but he wasn't available, and that makes a lot of sense. Then Peter Sellers was supposed to do it and he had a heart attack during filming. It goes without saying that both of those guys would have killed, but Ray Walston is what we got and I can accept that, I guess.

By far my favorite performance in the movie is Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol. She steals the show and by the end of the movie I was totally crushing on her. I also read (thanks, Wikipedia!) that Marilyn Monroe was meant to play the role, but of course, she died during pre-production. Well, I could see why they wanted a Lemmon/Monroe reunion, but I'm glad Novak got the part, because she brought a soul to the character that I'm not entirely sure Monroe could have.

Dean Martin wasn't actually a huge part of the movie. He spends a lot of it sleeping, actually, occasionally waking up to sing a song or complain about not having had sex yet. I don't know how self aware of his character's portrayal that Martin was for this, but he comes across as a total creep. It seems to me that Dino might not have realized that Wilder was sometimes lighting and shooting him to look like a home invader or a rapist or something. If he was aware, that's awesome that he's willing to let himself be portrayed that way, but if he wasn't aware, that's kind of even more awesome.

Just like up above, I won't spoil the ending, but I was genuinely surprised at how adult it was! Things have come a long way in the nine years since the relatively chaste days of The Seven Year Itch. So to sum things up: Dino's a creep, Walston is hammy, and Novak steals it. The script is sly and edgy, but with a better protagonist, the movie could have been a whole lot more. Still, Wilder pulls it off and Kiss Me, Stupid is still a good time.


If you want to read more of my Billy Wilder reviews, follow these links!
- The Front Page
- Ace in the Hole
- The Seven Year Itch / Sabrina


  1. Mr. Moore, thanks much for your reflections on "Kiss Me Stupid." Certainly a film way ahead of it's time and, to me, an amazin' vehicle for the talents of Dino...probably the most underated entertainer ever. Know your thoughts are bein'shared this day at ilovedinomartin.