"Witness for the Prosecution" is a disgracefully lame and perfunctory remake of the 1957 Billy Wilder movie, taken in turn from a 1955 Agatha Christie courtroom thriller. The average inane TV movie is usually at worst a forgivable waste of time, but clammy, sleepwalking TV remakes of good films like "Witness" are more on the order of outrage.
They also serve as blots on the memory of the originals, and it is no surprise at all to discover that this paltry excuse for a "Witness" -- the CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9 -- was produced by that busy little blight-about-town Norman Rosemont, who in the past committed similarly grubby desecrations of previously filmed works like "Miracle on 34th Street" (beware Rosemont's jerry-built remake of that one in holiday TV listings), "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Captains Courageous," "A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." This guy is a grave robber sans merci.
Pity the TV children brought up on Rosemont's wretched fourth-carbon copies of works they ought to be reading in their original form or watching rich and respectable movie versions of on "The Late Show," although even the "Late Shows" of the world seem given over now to recent, rather than vintage, films.
Rosemont's delinquent "Witness" features a cast of performers almost without exception definitively wrong for their roles, especially if one compares them to Wilder's illustrious assemblage. Ralph Richardson is dithery and befuddled where he should be crusty and grand as the aged London barrister, fresh out of the hospital, who agrees against a doctor's wishes to take on one more murder case: that of young Leonard Vole, accused of killing an elderly woman for the 80,000 pounds she left him in her will.
As thoroughly wrong as Richardson is, at least he's a real actor. Preposterously wrong, and irredeemably so, are Beau Bridges as Vole, Diana Rigg as Vole's cunningly duplicitous wife Christine, and Deborah Kerr, making a sad spectacle of herself as the barrister's nagging nurse, a role Kerr obviously had no intention of actually playing. She just sort of stopped by on her way to Harrod's.
The casting of "Witness" is crucial because the dramatic ship on which sail is set has never been very seaworthy. It's shot full of holes and leaks like mad. And yet Wilder and company did put it over, with a blast, mainly because the company was magnificent: Charles Laughton as the barrister, Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Laughton) as the nurse, Tyrone Power as the accused killer, and, stunningly right and magnetic, Marlene Dietrich as the perverse Mrs. Vole.
One key weakness of the film was that it remained within the courtroom set -- as if it were still a stage play -- for the outrageous denouement, in which Christie delivered her surprise ending and a would-be wallop of a payoff. One has to credit John Gay, who wrote this new adaptation, for so magnificently failing to find a way to make this scene play believably. He doesn't even try. Nothing Gay has done with the original can possibly be considered an improvement; Gay should be photocopying old scripts, not rewriting them.
Those who saw the original film can do themselves a favor by avoiding the new one. Those who didn't see the original film can do themselves a favor and wait for it to turn up on the air or at a revival house. Rosemont's scurvy version, directed by Alan Gibson, is offered under the umbrella of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame." Tonight, it's the Hall of Infamy; to watch is to be witness to a prostitution.