Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American courtroom drama film based on a short story (and later play) by Agatha Christie dealing 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 Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) on as a client, over the protestations of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), that the doctor had told him to stay away from 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 tidy, too neat--"too symmetrical!" And so it proves. By chance, he and Christine are left alone in the courtroom. She takes the opportunity to take credit for the whole thing. When she heard him say at the beginning that a wife's testimony would not be convincing, she decided to set it up so that hers would be given for the prosecution and then be discredited. An ex-actress, she had played the part of the mystery woman so well that Sir Wilfrid did not recognize her when he negotiated for the letters. She knew that Leonard was guilty; her testimony was the truth. Her letters are a fraud — Max never existed. When asked why she did it, she confesses that she loves Leonard.
Leonard appears and, now protected by double jeopardy, nonchalantly confirms what Christine had said. A young woman (Ruta Lee) then rushes into his arms. When he admits that he and the young woman are going away together, Christine kills him with a knife in a fit of fury. Sir Wilfrid remarks that Christine did not murder Leonard, but that she "executed him". Miss Plimsoll then cancels Sir Wilfrid's holiday, realizing that he cannot resist taking charge of Christine's defense.
- Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole
- Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm
- Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts
- Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll
- John Williams as Brogan-Moore, a barrister working for Vole
- Henry Daniell as Mayhew, Vole's solicitor
- Ian Wolfe as Carter, Sir Wilfred's office manager
- Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers, the Crown prosecutor
- Norma Varden as Mrs Emily Jane French
- Una O'Connor as Janet McKenzie, Mrs French's housekeeper and a prosecution witness
- Francis Compton as Judge
- Philip Tonge as Inspector Hearne
- Ruta Lee as Diana
- Patrick Aherne as the Court Officer
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.
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.
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."
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.
The film received extremely positive reviews, and is one of few films to hold a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 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 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).
Lanchester also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
- American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Christine Helm Vole - Nominated Villain
- 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.
The first adaptation of the Agatha Christie story was a BBC television production made in, 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
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.
The play was first performed in Nottingham on September 28, 1953, opened in London on October 28, 1953 and on Broadway on December 16, 1954.