Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Movie


Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts is thrust back into the courtroom in what becomes one of the most unusual and eventful murder case of the lawyer's career when he finds himself defending Leonard Vole, a man being tried for the murder of a wealthy woman. With Robarts choosing to represent him, the two find themselves up against Leonard's cold-hearted wife, Christine - who, in a surprising turn of events, chooses to appear in court against her husband.
USA
IMDb   8.4 /10
TheMovieDb    8.3 /10
RottenTomatoes  100 %
FilmAffinity   8.6 /10
Creators
Director Billy Wilder
Writer Agatha Christie
Writer Billy Wilder
Writer Harry Kurnitz
Writer Lawrence B. Marcus
Information
Release Date1958-02-06
Runtime1h 56mins
GenreCrime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Content RatingApproved (Approved)
AwardsTop Rated Movies #66 | Nominated for 6 Oscars. Another 4 wins & 10 nominations.
CompanyEdward Small Productions
CountryUSA
LanguageEnglish, German

Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film)

Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American film co-adapted and directed by Billy Wilder, and starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. The film, which has film noir elements, depicts an English courtroom drama. Set in the Old Bailey in London, the picture is based on the 1953 play of the same name by Agatha Christie and deals with the trial of a man accused of murder. The first film adaptation of Christie's story, Witness for the Prosecution was adapted for the screen by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and Wilder. The film received positive reviews and six Academy Award nominations.


Plot

Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a senior barrister, just recovering from a heart attack, takes on the case of Leonard Vole. This is despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who says the doctor has warned him against taking on any criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French, a rich, older widow who had become enamoured of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Vole as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid believes Vole is innocent.

When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Vole's German wife Christine, he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi, although by no means an entirely convincing one. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when, at the end of the trial, she is summoned as a witness by the prosecuting barrister.

While a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband, Christine was in fact still married to Otto Helm, a German man now living in East Germany in the Russian Zone, when she wed Vole (who was in the Royal Air Force and part of the occupation forces in Germany at the time, and married her to help her escape Germany). She testifies that Vole privately confessed to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth.

During the trial in the Old Bailey, 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 handwriting is genuine, and the woman has legitimate reason for handing them over - her face has been scarred and slashed, supposedly by this "Max". The affair the letters outline, and one paragraph in particular detailing Max and Christine's plan to lie and get rid of Leonard, convinces the jury that Christine had deliberately perjured herself. Leonard is acquitted, much to the crowd's delight.

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, brought into the courtroom for safety after the departing crowd attack her for lying, tells him he had help winning the case. 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, then forged the letters to the non-existent Max, and had herself in disguise played the mysterious woman handing over the letters, discrediting her own testimony and leading to the acquittal. She furthermore admits she saved Leonard Vole, even though she knew he was guilty, because she loves him.

Leonard has overheard Christine's admission, and cheerfully confirms to Sir Wilfred that he had indeed killed Mrs. French. Sir Wilfrid is infuriated but helpless to stop him now, thanks to double jeopardy laws. Christine also suffers a major shock when she finds Leonard has been having an affair with a younger woman and plans to abandon Christine for her, feeling he and Christine are now "even", having saved each other's lives. Christine angrily grabs a knife (used earlier as evidence and subtly highlighted by Sir Wilfrid's monocle light-reflection) and kills Leonard. After she is taken away by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on Christine's defence.


Cast

Credited

  • 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 Mr. Mayhew, Vole's solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case
  • Ian Wolfe as H. A. Carter, Sir Wilfrid's chief clerk and office manager
  • Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers Q.C., 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 Mr. Justice Wainwright, the judge
  • Philip Tonge as Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer
  • Ruta Lee as Diana, a young woman watching the trial, waiting for Leonard to be freed

Uncredited

  • Patrick Aherne as the court officer
  • Eddie Baker as a courtroom spectator
  • 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 Wilfrid's doctor
  • Ben Wright as court clerk (the officer reading charges)

Cast notes

Witness for the Prosecution was Power's final completed film. He died of a heart attack after a lengthy dueling sequence two-thirds of the way through the filming of director King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba (1959) and was replaced by Yul Brynner.

In real life, Elsa Lanchester was Charles Laughton's wife.

Una O'Connor was the only member of the original Broadway play's cast to reprise her role on film. It was also her final film; she retired from acting after its completion.


Production

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. Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956. According to Wilder, when the producers approached Dietrich about the part she accepted on the condition that Wilder direct. Wilder said Dietrich liked "to play a murderess" but was "a little bit embarrassed when playing the love scenes."

Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was well known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.

Vivien Leigh, as well as Marlene Dietrich were leading candidates to play Christine Vole.

In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers, made famous by Dietrich in director Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). 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. The Bar is called Die blaue Laterne (English: The Blue Lantern), which is a reference to Dietrich's famous movie The Blue Angel.


United Artists’ “Surprise Ending” Caveat

At the end of the film, as the credits roll, a voice-over announces:

The management of this theater 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!"

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 reportedly 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 defence.


Reception

The film received extremely positive reviews. Agatha Christie “herself considered it the finest film derived from one of her stories.” It currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews with an average rating of 8.53/10. 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."

The American Film Institute included the film in AFI's 10 Top 10 as #6 in the Courtroom Drama category.

The film reached number one at the US box office for two consecutive weeks in February and March 1958.

Accolades

AwardCategorySubjectResult
Academy AwardsBest PictureArthur Hornblow Jr.Nominated
Best DirectorBilly WilderNominated
Best ActorCharles LaughtonNominated
Best Supporting ActressElsa LanchesterNominated
Best Film EditingDaniel MandellNominated
Best Sound RecordingGordon E. SawyerNominated
British Academy Film AwardsBest Actor in a Leading RoleCharles LaughtonNominated
David di Donatello AwardsBest Foreign ActorWon
Directors Guild of America AwardsOutstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion PicturesBilly WilderNominated
Edgar Allan Poe AwardsBest Motion PictureBilly Wilder and Harry KurnitzNominated
Golden Globe AwardsBest Motion Picture – DramaNominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – DramaCharles LaughtonNominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – DramaMarlene DietrichNominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion PictureElsa LanchesterWon
Best Director – Motion PictureBilly WilderNominated
Laurel AwardsTop Drama4th Place
Top Female Dramatic PerformanceMarlene Dietrich2nd Place
Online Film & Television Association AwardsHall of Fame – Motion PictureWon

Other adaptations

The first adaptation of the Agatha Christie story was a BBC television production made in 1949, with a running time of 75 minutes.

Another early production of Witness for the Prosecution was in the form of a live telecast on CBS's Lux Video Theatre on September 17, 1953, starring Edward G. Robinson, Andrea King and Tom Drake.

Christie's play was first performed in Nottingham on September 28, 1953, opened in London on 28 October and on Broadway on December 16, 1954.

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.

In 2016, a miniseries starring Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall and David Haig was broadcast on BBC One and received widespread acclaim.

Also in 2016, Deadline Hollywood announced that Ben Affleck would direct, produce and act in a remake of Witness for the Prosecution for 20th Century Fox, but production has yet to start as of 2020.


Home media

Witness for the Prosecution was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on December 11, 2001 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD, and by Kino Lorber (under licence from MGM) on Blu-ray on July 22, 2014 as a Region 1 widescreen disc.