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.

Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a master barrister in ill health, is planning his retirement to Bermuda when he takes on Leonard Vole as a client, despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who says the doctor warns him against taking on any criminal cases. Leonard 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 Leonard as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid believes Vole is innocent.

When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Leonard'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 can not be compelled to testify against her husband, Christine was in fact still married to Otto Helm, a German man now in an insane asylum, when she wed Leonard (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 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, 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, left alone with him by chance in the courtroom, informs him that he had help in 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, had 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 that she saved Leonard 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 'even' now. In a jealous rage, Christine grabs a knife earlier used as evidence (and subtly highlighted by Sir Wilfrid's monocle light-reflection), 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 Christine's defense.

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.[2]

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.

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.[3] Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.[4] 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."[5]

Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was well known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.[3]

Vivien Leigh, as well as Marlene Dietrich were leading candidates to play Christine Vole.[6]

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).[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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!"[10]

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.[11]

The film received extremely positive reviews. Agatha Christie “herself considered it the finest film derived from one of her stories.”[12][13] It currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews with an average rating of 8.53/10.[14] 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."[15]

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

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.[17]

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.[18]

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, despite Deadline Hollywood announcing that Ben Affleck will direct, produce and act in a remake of Witness for the Prosecution for 20th Century Fox,[19] production has yet to start as of 2020.

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.