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Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama film based on a short story (and later play) by Agatha Christie dealing with the trial of a man accused of murder. This trial movie was the first film adaptation of the story, stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton, and features Elsa Lanchester. The movie was adapted by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and the film's director Billy Wilder.

Witness for the Prosecution 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.

Plot

Sir Wilfred 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. French (Norma Varden), a rich, older woman 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 Wilfred 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. 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 Baileymarker, carefully recreated by Alexandre Trauner), Sir Wilfred is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max. This correspondence gives her such a strong motive to lie that the jury finds Leonard not guilty.

However, Sir Wilfred is troubled by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was too tidy, too neat. 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 for the prosecution and then be discredited. An ex-actress, she had played the part of the mystery woman so well that Sir Wilfred 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 they are going away together, Christine kills him with a knife in a fit of fury. Sir Wilfred remarks that Christine did not murder Leonard, but that she "executed him". Miss Plimsoll then cancels Sir Wilfred's holiday, realizing that he cannot resist taking charge of Christine's defense.

Cast



Tyrone Power
Marlene Dietrich
Charles Laughton
Elsa Lanchester
John Williams
Henry Daniell
Ian Wolfe
Torin Thatcher
Norma Varden
Una O'Connor
Francis Compton
Philip Tonge
Ruta Lee

Leonard Vole
Christine Vole/Helm
Sir Wilfred Robarts
Miss Plimsoll
Mr Brogan-Moore
Mr Mayhew
Carter
Mr Myers
Mrs Emily French
Janet McKenzie
`His Lordship'
C.I.
Hearne
Diana

  Accused of murder
  Vole's wife, but title character
  Vole's barrister
  Sir Wilfred's nurse
  Barrister on Vole's team
  Vole's solicitor
  Sir Wilfred's office manager
  The Crown Prosecutor
  The victim
  Mrs French's housekeeper
  The judge
  The arresting officer
  Vole's girlfriend

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.

Production

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 stuntmenand $90,000.

Disclaimer

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 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 Artistsdidn'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.

Legal inaccuracies

In the book Reel Justice, the authors noted that a lawyer of Sir Wilfred's experience should have been able to disallow Christine Vole's testimony for the prosecution on the grounds she was a "putative spouse" of Leonard Vole. A putative spouse is a person to whom someone (in this case, Leonard Vole) sincerely believes he or she is legally married. For the purposes of the trial under that situation, Christine would, in effect, still be considered Leonard's wife and spousal privilegewould apply.

Additionally, it could be argued that Christine's testimony that Leonard had said "I have killed her" the night of the murder should have been objected to because it is inadmissible hearsay. However most jurisdictions recognize an exception to the hearsay rule for confessions.

Sir Wilfred would hardly defend Christine for murder when he himself is a witness to the crime.

The standard of proofrequired for a jury to convict an individual of murder is beyond reasonable doubt - a very high standard. Deftly discrediting so many witnesses as Sir Wilfred does goes a long way to inject that reasonable doubt. Additionally, since capital punishment existed at the time it was not uncommon for juries to be particularly careful in ensuring certainty before a guilty verdict. The effective strength of the prosecution case is a matter of some debate.

Other adaptations

The first adaptation of the Agatha Christie story was a BBCtelevision production made in , with a running time of 75 minutes.

Another early production of Witness for the Prosecutionwas in the form of a live telecast which aired on CBS's Lux Video Theatreon September 17, 1953, starring Edward G.Robinson, Andrea Kingand Tom Drake

In , Witness for the Prosecutionwas remadeas a television movie, starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, and Diana Rigg. It was adapted by Lawrence B.Marcusand John Gayfrom the original screenplay and directed by Alan Gibson.

The play was first performed in Nottinghammarker on September 28, 1953, opened in Londonmarker on October 28, 1953 and on Broadwaymarker on December 16, 1954.

Notes

  1. "Witness for the Prosecution" at Movie Poster Database
  2. Osborne, Robert. Comments on TCM broadcast 29 October 2008
  3. "Witness for the Prosecution" at the Official Andrea King Web Site


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