Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

United Artists (Edward Small-Arthur Hornblow Productions)


In 1957, Billy Wilder directed “Witness for the Prosecution,” a courtroom drama film based on a short story (and later play) by Agatha Christie about the trial of a man accused of murder, with an all-star cast headed by Tyrone Power (in his last role), Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and best of all Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's real wife).

By standards of Wilder, the tale, adapted to the screen by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz, and Wilder ,was old-fashioned, but it was also supremely entertaining, replete with twists and turns and double iidnetities, which may account for its popularity and Oscar nominations.

Sir Wilfred Robarts (Laughton), a master barrister in poor health due to a heart attack, represents Leonard Vole (Power) as a client, despite protests by private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), that he should stay away from criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a rich, older woman whose attraction to him motivated her to make him the beneficiary of her will. There's solid circumstantial evidence that Vole is the cold-blooded murderer.

Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich, much older than Power), comes across as cold and in control, but she offers the necessary alibi. Or does she?  Called as a witness for the prosecution, Christine  discloses that she was married to another man while wedding Vole.  She now testifies about Vole's admission to her about the killing.

During the trial, Sir Wilbert is contacted by a mysterious cockney girl who sells him letters reportedly written by Christine to her lover. This correspondence gives her such a strong motive to lie that the jury finds Vole not guilty. However, motivated by instincts, Sir Wilfred is not happy with the too neat verdict.  It turns out that her letters are a fraud and the lover never existed. Christine claimed she did it for her love for Vole, and the latter confirms her new testimony.  Miss Plimsoll then cancels Sir Wilfred's holiday, realizing he cannot resist taking charge of Christine's defense.

A flashback shows how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, with Diterich wearing her trademark outfit, which reveals the stars renowned legs.

At film's end, there's a requests: 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 the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution. The posters for the film announced: “You'll talk about it, but please don't tell the ending.”  Reportedly, Wilder concealed the ending from his cast, too, handing them the final script only at the end of the shoot.

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.  Una O'Connor was the only member of the original Broadway play's cast to reprise her role in Wilder's picture. 

The first adaptation of Christie's story was for a 1949 BBC telefilm. In 1953, there was also a live telecast which aired on CBS's Lux Video Theatre, starring Edward G. Robinson, Andrea King and Tom Drake.  In 1982, Witness for the Prosecution was remade as a nother TV movie with Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, and Diana Rigg.

Oscar Nominations: 6

 

Picture, produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.

Director: Billy Wilder

Actor: Charles Laughton

Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester

Film Editing: Daniel Mandell

Sound: Gordon Sawyer (Goldwyn Sound Department)

 

Oscar Awards: None

 

Oscar Context

 

In 1957, “Bridge on the River Kwai” was not the most nominated picture.  That honored was claimed by “Sayonara,” with 10 nominations, and the small-town melodrama “Peyton Place,” with 9.   The other two nominees were courtroom dramas: Sidney Lumet's brilliant feature debut, “Twelve Angry Men” and Billy Wilder's “Witness for the Prosecution.”

 

“Bridge on the River Kwai” won in every category it was nominated but Supporting Actor, which went to Red Buttons in “Sayonara,” a film that also garnered Supporting Actress for Miyoshi Umeki, even though Lanchester was frontrunner in the pre-Oscar polls.  Three of the Best Picture nominees, “Peyton Place,” “Twelve Angry Men,” and “Witness for the Prosecution” didn't win any awards.

 

Cast

 

Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power)

Christine Helm/Vole (Marlene Dietrich)

Sir Wilfrid Robards (Charles Laughton)

Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchster)

Brogan Moore (John Williams)

Mr. Mayhew (Henry Daniell)

Carter (Ian Wolfe)

Janet Mackenzie (Una O'Connor)

Mr. Meyers (Torin Thatcher)

Judge (Francis Compton)

Mrs. French (Norma Varden)

 

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