“It’s not the jury’s judgment that worries me. It’s mine.”
“No more murder cases,” is the doctor’s strict prohibition upon reluctantly releasing renowned barrister and recent heart attack survivor Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) from hospital. (Although even the word “release” seems to be a matter of some dispute here, because according to Sir Wilfrid’s nurse Miss Plimsoll [Elsa Lanchester], he was “expelled for conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient.” But let’s leave that aside for now.) And following the doctor’s orders, Sir Wilfrid’s staff have lined up an array of civil cases: a divorce, a tax appeal, and a marine insurance claim – surely those will satisfy their hard-to-please employer’s demands?
Err … not likely.
So, try as he might to be a good patient, Sir Wilfrid needs only little encouragement to accept the case of handsome drifter and small-time inventor Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of murdering his rich benefactress Emily French (Norma Varden). Of course, the very circumstances that most disturb the famous barrister’s colleagues Mayhew and Brogan-Moore (Henry Daniell and John Williams) – Mrs. French’s infatuation with Vole, his visit to her on the night of the murder, the lack of an alternative suspect and his inheritance under her new will – just make the matter more interesting in Sir Wilfrid’s eyes. Most problematic, however, is Vole’s alibi, which depends entirely on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), an actress he had met when stationed with the RAF in WWII-ravaged Hamburg. Troubling, insofar, isn’t only that Christine is her husband’s sole alibi witness and that – Sir Wilfrid explains – a devoted wife’s testimony doesn’t carry much weight anyway. The real problem is that Christine isn’t the loving, desperate wife one might expect: far from that, she is cool, calculating and surprisingly self-controlled; so much so that, worried because he cannot figure out her game, Sir Wilfrid decides not let her testify at all, rather than risk damaging his case. That, however, seems to have been one of his illustrious career’s few major miscalculations – because now he and his client suddenly have to face Christine as a witness for the prosecution. And her testimony on the stand is only one of several surprises that she has in store.
Witness for the Prosecution is based on a concept that Agatha Christie first realized as a four-person short story (published in the 1933 collection The Hound of Death) and subsequently adapted into what she herself would later call her best play, which opened in London in 1953 and in 1954 on Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle citation as Best Foreign Play. Throughout the adaptations the storyline was fleshed out more and more, the focus shifted from the work of solicitor Mayherne (whose name changed to Mayhew) to that of QC Sir Wilfrid Robarts, and the screenplay ingeniously added Miss Plimsoll’s character, utilizing the proven on-screen chemistry of real-life spouses Laughton and Lanchester, for whom this was an astonishing eleventh collaboration, and whose banter bristles with director / co-screenwriter Billy Wilder’s dry wit and the fireworks of the couple’s pricelessly deadpan delivery, timing and genuine joy of performing together.
Perhaps most importantly, the story’s ending changed: not entirely, but enough to give it a different and, albeit very dramatic, less cynical slant than the short story’s original conclusion. – To those of us who have grown up with Christie‘s works, those of her idol Conan Doyle and on a steady diet of Perry Mason, Rumpole of the Bailey and the many subsequent other fictional attorneys, the plot twists of Witness for the Prosecution (including its ending) may not come as a major surprise. At the moment of the movie’s release, however, the ending was a much-guarded secret; viewers were encouraged not to reveal it both in the movie’s trailer and at the beginning of the film itself; and even the Royal Family were sworn to silence before a private showing. Similarly, features such as the skillful, methodical unveiling of a seemingly upstanding, disinterested witness’s hidden bias in cross-examination have long become standard fare in both real and fictional courtrooms, and any mystery fan worth their salt has heard more than one celluloid attorney yell at a cornered witness: “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” (Not recommended in real-life trial practice, incidentally.) Yet, in these and other respects it was Witness for the Prosecution which laid the groundwork for many a courtroom drama to come; and herein lies much of its ongoing importance.
Moreover, this is simply an outstandingly-acted film; not only by Laughton, Lanchester and a perfectly-cast Marlene Dietrich but by every single actor, also including Torin Thatcher (prosecutor Mr. Myers), Francis Compton (the presiding Judge) and, most noteably, Una O’Connor (Mrs. French’s disgruntled housekeeper). This is true even if Tyrone Power’s emotional outbursts in court may be bewildering to today’s viewers – and even if one wonders why an American-born star was acceptable for an Englishman’s role without even having to bother trying to put on an English accent in the first place, whereas Dietrich and other non-native English speakers of the period, like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, were routinely cast as foreigners. (Yes, yes, I know. Redford and Out of Africa come to mind somewhat more recently, too, but that’s a can of worms I won’t reopen here.)
Witness for the Prosecution won a Golden Globe for Elsa Lanchester, but unfortunately none of its six Oscar nominations (which undeservedly didn’t even include Marlene Dietrich), taking second seat to the year’s big winner Bridge on the River Kwai in the Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Actor (Alec Guinness) and Best Editing categories, and to Sayonara for Best Supporting Acress (Miyoshi Umeki) and Best Sound. No matter: with the noirish note resulting from its use of multiple levels of ambiguity – in noticeable contrast to Christie‘s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries – it fits seamlessly next to such Billy Wilder masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity; and it has long since become a true classic, courtroom and otherwise.
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: MGM / United Artists (1957)
- Director: Billy Wilder
- Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
- Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Harry Kurnitz
- Adaptation: Laurence B. “Larry” Marcus
- Based on a play (and short story) by: Agatha Christie
- Music: Matty Malneck
- Cinematography / Director of Photography: Russell Harlan
- Tyrone Power: Leonard Vole
- Marlene Dietrich: Christine Vole
- Charles Laughton: Sir Wilfrid Robarts
- Elsa Lanchester: Miss Plimsoll
- Henry Daniell: Mayhew
- John Williams: Brogan-Moore
- Torin Thatcher: Mr. Myers
- Francis Compton: Judge
- Norma Varden: Mrs. Emily Jane French
- Una O’Connor: Janet MacKenzie
- Ian Wolfe: Carter
- Philip Tonge: Inspector Hearne
Major Awards and Honors
Golden Globes (1958)
- Best Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester
American Film Institute (AFI)
- 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Drama: No. 6
- Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Witness for the Prosecution at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Broadway Database
- Witness for the Prosecution at the TCM Movie Database
- Witness for the Prosecution at AllMovie.com
- Tyrone Power’s profile at Biography.com
- Marlene Dietrich’s official website
- The Marlene Dietrich Collection, Berlin (MDCB)
- Marlene Dietrich’s profile at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Marlene Dietrich’s profile at the Internet Broadway Database
- Marlene Dietrich’s profile at the TCM Movie Database
- Marlene Dietrich’s profile at AllMovie.com
- Marlene Dietrich’s obituary in The Washington Post
- Marlene Dietrich’s FBI Files
- Themis-Athena’s artist page for Marlene Dietrich
- Charles Laughton’s official website
- Elsa Lanchester’s official website
- Agatha Christie Ltd.
- Agatha Christie’s biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Project: Little Grey Cells: St. Mary Mead & Elsewhere
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series and some of its episodes:
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple TV series and some of its episodes: