Witness For The Prosecution

Oh my god, real justice is so much shittier than movie justice.

Last week I finished reading Matt Taibbi's book The Divide, which is about how there are two different justice systems in America, one for poor people and one for rich people. As you might expect, the system is pretty harsh on poor people: the court system is so inefficient in it's prosecution of misdemeanor arrests that it generally costs more money in lawyer fees and missed days of work to protest a small charge than it would cost to pay the required fine, so most people end up copping a plea just to be done with it - even if they could have proved their innocence in court, and even though that charge will now follow them around for the rest of their life. Naturally, the rich face a more lenient system: the stock brokers and bankers that committed massive fraud in the lead up to the economic crash of 2008 got off completely scot free because their crimes were considered too complex to prosecute, so even though their guilt was imminently obvious and completely proveable not one of them was punished. It's impossible to read that book and not think: man, our court system sucks.

Just this morning I finished watching Billy Wilder's 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution, which is a legal thriller about a man who is on trial for his life. The man is Leonard Vole, and he's a broke would-be inventor who had become friends with a rich widow in the weeks before she was murdered in her own home. The case against him is pretty strong: he has an obvious motive for murder, his trench coat is covered in someone else's blood, and his alibi is flimsy. It isn't looking good for Leonard - and after Leonard's wife testifies against him in open court, it looks even worse. Fortunately, his struggle is our gain - Witness for the Prosecution is a crackerjack little movie, full of clever dialogue and enjoyable (albeit unbelievable) twists. In particular, the ending is great, since it doubles back on itself three times in just about as many minutes. It's hard to watch this movie and not think: man, trials are awesome.

Like I said: real justice is so much shittier than movie justice.

Now, normally I wouldn't make that comparison because it's completely unfair; reality puts a lot of constraints on the legal system that a good scriptwriter can avoid with a stroke of a pen. A flesh and blood lawyer can't expect essential pieces of evidence to fall in their lap just when they need it, but movie lawyers have a knack for discovering a smoking gun at the perfect time. (In Witness for the Prosecution, the magic evidence is a series of love letters that prove that a witness has committed perjury - and they are discovered immediately after that person testified, but before the jury rendered a verdict.) Slagging our legal system because it doesn't live up to the hypothetical legal system we can imagine in our fantasies is silly...

...Except in this case I think there's something to be gained from the comparison. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of switchbacks at the end of Witness for the Prosecution: the verdict is delivered, then after the court has adjourned we find out that someone was lying to manipulate the jury, then we find out who really committed the murder. Our idea of who is guilty and who is innocent ping pongs back and forth several times after the case is already closed. This acknowledges that the court system is not perfect at establishing who is guilty and who is innocent while maintaining that it still matters who is guilty and who is innocent. It's rare to find a thriller that can make a distinction between legal accountability and moral culpability, especially a film from this era...

But while Witness for the Prosecution is a lot more cynical than your average thriller from the 1950s, it's still feels a bit naive today, because it still wraps up tidily in the end with the culprit getting punished for their sins. That sort of karmic balancing out made more sense back then than it does now. There's a very real chance that the modern court system is indifferent to the idea that someone's guilt or innocence matters on a moral level, and if that's the world we're in then that sort of tidiness is almost an impossibility.

Again, I realize that this is apples and oranges: even if we overlook the difference between reality and fiction, Witness for the Prosecution is from 1957 and it is set in England instead of America, so it is clearly describing a completely different justice system than the one Matt Taibbi is. However, I do think that there's a reason why Witness for the Prosecution is still compelling today - it's because it taps into a certain feeling of righteousness that's very much unchanged over the last six or seven decades and which probably doesn't vary much from country to country. I think we all want to believe that even if our courts can't always deliver the right verdict that they would at least put in the effort to try to get the right verdict. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure our courts are still putting in that work - or if they are, they are only doing so intermittently.

I think the real difference between a real court case and a movie about a court case is not that one is more entertaining than the other - it's that I think it's easier for a fictional court case to actually appeal to our ingrained moral values. And that, my friends, is pretty shitty.

Winner: Me (vis a vis the movie at least)

Witness for the Prosecution on IMDB