Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film)
|Witness for the Prosecution|
|Directed by||Billy Wilder|
|Produced by||Arthur Hornblow Jr.|
|Screenplay by||Larry Marcus
|Based on||The Witness for the Prosecution
by Agatha Christie
|Music by||Matty Malneck
Ralph Arthur Robert
|Editing by||Daniel Mandell|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Running time||116 minutes|
Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American courtroom drama film set in the Old Bailey in London. The film, based on a short story (and later play) by Agatha Christie, deals with the trial of a man accused of murder. The first film adaptation of this story, it stars Tyrone Power (in his final screen role), Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton, and features Elsa Lanchester. The film was adapted by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and the film's director Billy Wilder.
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), a master barrister in ill health, takes on Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) as a client, despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who says the doctor warns him against taking on any criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich, older widow who had become enamored of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence all points to Vole as the killer.
When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when she is called as a witness for the prosecution. While a wife cannot testify against her husband, it is shown that Christine was in fact still married to another man when she wed Leonard (although Vole, believing in good faith that he was married to Christine at the time, might still have qualified under the spousal privilege rule). She testifies that Leonard admitted to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and that her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth.
During the trial (in the Old Bailey, carefully recreated by art director Alexandre Trauner), Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine herself to a mysterious lover named Max. The affair revealed by this correspondence gives Christine such a strong motive to have lied that the jury finds Leonard not guilty.
However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was "...too neat, too tidy, and altogether...too symmetrical!". His belief proves correct when Christine, left alone with him by chance in the courtroom, takes the opportunity to take credit for the verdict. Sir Wilfrid had told her before the trial that "...no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife". So, she had instead given testimony implicating her husband, had then forged the letters to the non-existing Max and had herself in disguise played the mysterious woman handing over the letters which then discredited her own testimony and led to the acquittal. She furthermore admits that she saved Leonard even though she knew he was guilty because she loves him.
Leonard has overheard Christine's admission. Being protected by double jeopardy, he coldly tells Christine that he has met a younger woman (Ruta Lee) and leaves her. In a jealous rage, Christine grabs a knife used as evidence and stabs Leonard to death. After she is taken away by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on her defence.
The film ends with a voice-over suggesting to the viewer not to divulge the ending of the film to anyone.
The Credited Cast
- Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, the accused
- Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm, the accused's wife
- Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C., senior counsel for Vole
- Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid's private nurse
- John Williams as Mr. Brogan-Moore, Sir Wilfrid's junior counsel in the trial
- Henry Daniell as Mayhew, Vole's solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case
- Ian Wolfe as Carter, Sir Wilfred's clerk and office manager
- Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers, the Crown prosecutor
- Norma Varden as Mrs Emily Jane French, the elderly woman who was murdered
- Una O'Connor as Janet McKenzie, Mrs. French's housekeeper and a prosecution witness
- Francis Compton as the Judge
- Philip Tonge as Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer
- Ruta Lee as Diana, A young girl watching the trial.
Appearing in Bit Roles
- Patrick Aherne as the Court Officer
- Marjorie Eaton as Miss O'Brien
- Franklyn Farnum as an old barrister
- Bess Flowers as a Courtroom Spectator
- Colin Kenny as a juror
- Ottola Nesmith as Miss Johnson
- J. Pat O'Malley as the Shorts Salesman
- Jack Raine as Sir Wilfried's Doctor
- Ben Wright as Court Clerk (the barrister reading charges)
This was Power's final completed film. He died during the filming of Solomon and Sheba.
In real life, Lanchester was Charles Laughton's wife.
O'Connor was the only member of the original Broadway play's cast to reprise her role on film.
Producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small bought the rights to the play for $450,000. The play was adjusted to build up the character of the defence barrister. 1 Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.2
Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella.
In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers. A rowdy customer conveniently rips them down one side, revealing one of Dietrich's renowned legs, and starting a brawl. The scene required 145 extras, 38 stuntmen and $90,000.4
At the end of the film, as the credits roll, a voice-over announces:
The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.
This was in keeping with the advertising campaign for the film: one of the posters for the film said: "You'll talk about it, but please don't tell the ending."5
The effort to keep the ending a secret extended to the cast. Billy Wilder did not give the actors the final ten pages of the script until it was time to shoot those scenes. The secrecy may have cost Marlene Dietrich an Academy Award, as United Artists didn't want to call attention to the fact that Dietrich was practically unrecognizable as the cockney woman who hands over the incriminating letters to the defense.6
The film received extremely positive reviews,7 and currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.8 In TV Guide's review of the film, it received four and a half stars out of five, the writer saying that "Witness for the Prosecution is a witty, terse adaptation of the Agatha Christie hit play brought to the screen with ingenuity and vitality by Billy Wilder."9
The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charles Laughton), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Elsa Lanchester), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, and Best Sound (Gordon E. Sawyer).10
Lanchester also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
- American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated11
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Christine Helm Vole – Nominated Villain12
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – #6 Courtroom Drama
This film is based on Agatha Christie's own stage adaptation of her short story, but is greatly expanded. The comic relief scenes between Sir Wilfrid and Nurse Plimsoll, which are not included in the play, were added to the film by the screenwriters because they knew that husband-and-wife team Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester would be playing opposite each other. Nevertheless, Agatha Christie fans accepted the film as one of the greatest Christie based-films ever. In fact, the comic relationship between Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll was so successful with audiences and critics that it was included in the 1982 made-for-television remake of the story, in which Ralph Richardson and Deborah Kerr played the roles.
In 1982, Witness for the Prosecution was remade as a television film, starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, and Diana Rigg. It was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and John Gay from the original screenplay and directed by Alan Gibson.
- "A Town Called Hollywood: Outcome of Christie Play Kept Dark Secret for Film", Scheuer, Philip K., Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 July 1957: p.E2.
- "NEW MOVIE DEAL FOR BILLY WILDER: Signed to Direct 'Witness for the Prosecution' After Completing 2 Other Films R.K.O. Buys Rose TV Play", by Thomas M. Pryor, New York Times, 27 April 1956: p.22.
- Louella Parsons: Wilder to Do Broadway, London Hit The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 30 Apr 1956: 32.
- Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Movie Database
- "Witness for the Prosecution" at Movie Poster Database
- Osborne, Robert. Comments on TCM broadcast 29 October 2008
- 'WITNESS FOR PROSECUTION' DYNAMIC COURTROOM FILM Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Dec 1957: B14.
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film) at Rotten Tomatoes
- "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- "The 30th Academy Awards (1958) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
- "Witness for the Prosecution" at the Official Andrea King Web Site
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film) at the Internet Broadway Database
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- Witness for the Prosecution at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Movie Database
- Witness for the Prosecution at Rotten Tomatoes
- Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Broadway Database
- Witness for the Prosecution at the TCM Movie Database
- Witness for the Prosecution at allmovie