Witness for the Prosecution began life as a short story by Agatha Christie, first published in 1925 (with the original title Traitor Hands). Christie later adapted her story into a hit play, which opened London in 1953. A Broadway production followed the next year. The film version was shot in 1957, and had a limited USA release that December, before its general release in early 1958. Directed by Billy Wilder – whose films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Apartment (1960) were previous classic Five Star picks – Witness for the Prosecution went on to receive six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a really terrific film, and one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time. Here are some of the reasons I love it:
THE SCRIPT & DIRECTION
Wilder and Harry Kurnitz co-wrote Witness for the Prosecution’s screenplay, with adaptation work by Larry Marcus. Set in London, five years in the past (1952), the film features curmudgeonly (though endearing) master barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), who has recently returned to work after some major health issues, and is under the care of nurse Miss Plimsoll (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Sir Wilfred is defending Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who was charged with the murder of a rich widowed woman he’d recently befriended. Vole’s German-born wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) is initially called upon to corroberate her husband’s alibi for the night of the murder.
The script is absolutely compelling. The taut dialogue keeps the mystery running swiftly, and is peppered with great moments of humour and wit, which balance so wonderfully against the suspenseful dramatic elements. Much of the film’s action takes place in a courtroom at the Old Bailey, where Sir Wilfred is in his element. He in fact has the best lines of the film.
A strong script is the best foundation for a great film, but it would be nowhere without skilled direction. Wilder was a master director, and his work on Witness for the Prosecution was simply magnificent. There’s a lot going on in this film: flashbacks, comic scenes, dramatic rants, dry wit, crowd scenes, and even a musical number – and Wilder makes it all work together seamlessly.
LAUGHTON & LANCHESTER
Witness for the Prosecution was the last of the dozen films that Laughton and Lanchester worked together on. They are an absolutely marvelous team. Their timing is spot-on, and their rapport is seamless (their chemistry evident even when playing adversaries). Both were Oscar-nominated for their roles in this film. Though neither won (Laughton lost out to Alec Guinness for Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lanchester to Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara), Lanchester did go on to win a Golden Globe (Best Supporting Actress) for her role.
The rapid-fire, quick-witted dialogue between Laughton’s Sir Wilfred and Lanchester’s Miss Plimsoll is just delicious – evident from their very first appearance in a taxi in the opening scene. The Wilfred/Plimsoll schtick is basically: she fusses over him, and he is annoyed by, and insults her. The thing about their banter, however, is that even though they are constantly fighting, it doesn’t come across as mean-spirited. Wilfred snaps at her, but it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t come across as ugly or misogynistic.
Wilfred might by grumpy, but there’s something about him that’s endearing too. His (eventual) delighted response to trying out his newly-installed electric staircase is quite lovely. One minute he’s a crusty old bugger, and their next he’s like an excited little kid. Laughton’s best work in Witness for the Prosecution, however, is in the court scenes. It’s like he was born in the wig and gown. He’s just so perfectly suited to this role.
There was no Miss Plimsoll role in the Agatha Christie play: it was added to the film to capitalise on Lanchester’s extensive talents. Her scenes with her husband are such delightful moments of comedy, and they work so well when juxtaposed against the film’s dramatic, tense scenes.
Marlene Deitrich’s work in Witness for the Prosecution is breathtaking. She’s absolutely commanding as Christine, from her very first entrance. It’s a fabulous moment, when we actually hear her voice moments before we see her. Christine says one line unseen, then we see her standing defiantly in Wilfred’s doorway. She then delivers her next line as she walks in his direction, towards the camera (as it closes in on her, ending in a mid-shot). Her manner is steely and mesmerising.
Such ‘present day’ scenes for Christine are contrasted with flashback scenes of her time as a cabaret performer in war-time Germany. Christine sings a song to a room of drunken servicemen, in which her costume is torn, exposing one of Dietrich’s famous legs. Christine’s manner in the flashback scenes, like her other scenes, is determined – but there’s also a subtle difference in Dietrich’s acting style when she’s playing her character as almost a decade younger than in the present day scenes.
[SIDE NOTE: Dietrich’s costumes for Witness for the Prosecution were designed by 8-time Academy Award winner and Five Star Films favourite Edith Head. Head is actually the only creative who’s worked on six different films that have been chosen as GwP classic Five Star Films. For a list of the other film’s we’ve featured that Head worked on, see Section 5 here].
Some critics and viewers malign Tyrone Power’s performance in Witness for the Prosecution, calling it weak or melodramatic. I disagree. Vole is a complex role, and I think a lot of the criticism is unfair. I love Power’s performance, and feel it shows incredible range: from the comic/light scene where he demonstrates an eggbeater, to the young, swaggering impossibly handsome armed services officer, to a middle-aged man, stressfully facing the death penalty.
Witness for the Prosecution was the last film Tyrone Power completed. Sadly, in November 1958, at the age of 44, Power died of a heard attack in Spain, while on the set of King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba. The latter film was released in 1959, with Yul Brynner replacing Power.
I can’t give any details about the tremendous final scene of Witness for the Prosecution, for fear of spoiling it for viewers who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it.
As the voice-over a the end of the film’s credits says:
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.
If you have seen it, you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t seen it, you must. I mean it. Get a hold of a copy and watch it. You’ll thank me.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf