WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)

A veteran British barrister must defend his client in a murder trial that has surprise after surprise.

Okay, to avoid any spoilers, let’s start at the very end of the film. As the final credits roll, a voiceover says, with judicial authority “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,” and I’m going to do my best to comply even here, 61 years later…

There was a time when anyone you’d meet with the slightest interest in cinema would’ve already seen this film—and I suggest that if you haven’t, you should avoid all reviews and trailers until you do! Over the years, it has slipped into the more academic realms of film studies and cinema history. So, good news that it’s being made available to a wider audience once more with this impressive new Blu-ray release in the ‘Masters of Cinema’ series from Eureka Entertainment! It’s a classic courtroom drama with a stellar cast and one of the truly great directors at the helm.

Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution does present a conundrum for reviewers and critics, however, because the narrative relies so heavily on several unexpected twists and turns. Some of the characters are acting unconvincingly, because they’re playing a character putting on an act. What’s more, some are intentionally unconvincing to sway the jury’s (and thus the audience’s) opinions… so commenting on the performances is actually very difficult without giving away key plot points! Suffice to say the cast is all perfectly competent in their roles, though one thing’s for sure: it’s Charles Laughton’s central performance that really carries the film and keeps it eminently watchable from start to finish.

It began life as the 1925 short story Traitor’s Hands, written by Agatha Christie and published without much fanfare in Flynn’s, a weekly pulp magazine. It first appeared under the title Witness for the Prosecution in a 1933 collection of Christie’s short fiction, Hound of Death and Other Stories, where it stood out from the supernatural theme of the other tales by being a tightly plotted crime story. It wasn’t published in the US until 1948, when another anthology was released under the title Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. It was around this time that Christie revisited her short story and found the ending to be unsatisfactory. This bothered her, so she decided to rewrite it as a stage play with a cleverly altered conclusion.

The story starts with a brutal murder in a well-to-do area of London, where a society lady is bludgeoned to death in what appears to be a motiveless, cold-blooded attack. A down-on-his-luck entrepreneur, Leonard Vole, is arrested and put on trial as the prime suspect, because he was the last person to see the victim alive and is known to have left her house around the time of death. His alibi can only be corroborated by his wife, who cannot give evidence in favour of her husband for fear of bias. However, law does not prevent her from testifying as a witness for the prosecution… This little loophole presents a major challenge for Mr. Vole’s defence lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, and is only the first of many surprises he’ll have to deal with in court.

The play premiered in 1953 and then enjoyed a run at London’s Winter Gardens where it garnered plenty of positive reviews before crossing the Atlantic to Broadway the following year, where it received even more rave reviews. It was performed 645 times in a run that lasted until June 1956. Actress Patricia Jessel, who played the pivotal character Romaine in both the London and New York productions, won a Tony Award, as did Francis L. Sullivan, who headed the Broadway cast as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC. The Mystery Writers of America gave Agatha Christie the ‘Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play’.

So, it’s no surprise that it attracted the attention of Hollywood and the film rights were snapped up by producers Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Edward Small. Their first choice for director was Joshua Logan, an established Broadway director who at the time was transitioning his career to films with the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Bus Stop (1956), and would go on to make more big-name classics like Sayonara (1957), South Pacific (1958), Camelot (1967), and Paint Your Wagon (1969). Tentative casting began with Gene Kelly and Kirk Douglas being considered for the part of Leonard Vole and with Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth in the running for his wife, Romaine. It seems that the film was all set to be a straightforward rendition of the stage play.

That’s when Marlene Dietrich caught wind of the project and took the script to Billy Wilder, who’d directed her in A Foreign Affair (1948). She agreed to star in the film, but only if Wilder directed, and he reciprocated by saying he would direct, but only if she were cast.

Wilder also set about a radical rewrite, introducing new subplots and characters that were never in the play, and bringing his mastery of dialogue to the fore. He admired the play’s clever plotting and structure but thought that the characters lacked depth and needed to be filled-out, so an audience could engage emotionally with them. This he does brilliantly through sparky dialogue and by including a few flashbacks to create a more convincing backstory. I’d go as far to say that a literal transcription from stage to screen would’ve been far too tedious for modern audiences to sit through.

To begin with, he builds up the character of Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) by making him a semi-invalid, in recovery from a coma caused by a heart attack. It seems he’s managed an early discharge from hospital, simply by being too irascible, on the condition that he is assigned ‘home care’ in the form of Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), his comically overzealous nurse. This is all set up solely through their acerbic banter in the opening sequence as they journey through London by cab. The nurse is purely the invention of Wilder, but the relationship between these two characters is the thread that really holds the film together. It provides some much-needed moments of light relief throughout and humanises Sir Wilfrid.

There’s some clever casting going on here. Laughton and Lanchester had been married since 1929, but at the time were no longer living as husband and wife, both being in relationships with other people. Their marriage had run into problems early on, when Laughton had come to terms with his homosexuality. Wilder really capitalised on this pre-existing though difficult relationship in creating an intimacy that couldn’t have been achieved with any other pairing. Their nurse-patient interactions come across just like an old married couple, embittered by the years though still caring deeply about one another.

Together, Miss Plimsoll and junior counsel Mr Brogan-Moore (John Williams) form a foil for Sir Wilfrid’s blustering genius. Their three-way dialogues hint at the rapport Wilder would later create for his version of Holmes and Watson in the magnificent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

The rest of the casting is also very clever. Better known as a popular matinee idol, Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole as a charmingly disarming loser, a hard-done-by underdog that the jury, and we the audience, can identify with. Dietrich is well cast as his apparently cool and calculating wife, here renamed Christine. Dietrich had a reputation for playing larger-than-life femme fatales, and this, along with her roots in pre-war Germany, is utilised to expertly exploit the prejudices of the film’s contemporary audience.

Apart from a few establishing shots of London—including the mandatory British Bobby directing traffic, the film was made entirely in Hollywood. The success of the play, and the resulting guarantee of an audience for the film, commanded a respectable budget of $3M, which Wilder put to good use.

The set of the Old Bailey courtroom cost $75,000 alone, and was constructed with 60 removable sections to allow access for different camera and lighting setups. Just one scene, involving a brawl in a nightclub, reportedly cost $90,000, involving 38 stuntmen and 145 extras. By way of comparison, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, had a budget of less than $1M and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, cost a mere $340,000—both notable courtroom dramas made the same year. However, the investment paid off and Witness for the Prosecution was to earn back $9M at the box office.

The film was mid-career for Billy Wilder and fused two of the major genres he had already mastered. With films like Double Indemnity (1944), Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) he helped to define film noir. He’d also proven himself in comedy with classics like Ball of Fire (1941), Sabrina (1954) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). In many ways, though, the film marks the end of an era…

Tyrone Power’s first screen role was School for Wives (1925), coincidently the same year Agatha Christie wrote the original story that was to become Witness for the Prosecution, his final film. Sadly, he suffered a heart attack whilst filming a stunt sword-fighting sequence for Solomon and Sheba (1959) and died shortly afterward. Although late in the production, he was replaced by Yul Brynner.

It was also the final film for established character actress, Una O’Connor, who plays the dour, hard-of-hearing maid, another witness for the prosecution, and who was the only member of the Broadway cast to reprise her stage role for the film.

It’s also the last notable starring role for Marlene Dietrich who appeared in just a handful of cameos after this including a bit-part in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) and a more prominent role in another of the very finest courtroom dramas, Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961).

This was certainly one of the high points of Charles Laughton’s career—the role earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and he won the David di Donatello Award, and a BAFTA for ‘Best Foreign Actor’ (which is a tad confusing as he was British). Some say it’s his finest performance in a long career that started on the British stage and screen in the late 1920s, with The Old Dark House (1932) being his breakout movie in the US. Wilder hailed him as the greatest actor he’d worked with and Dietrich described him as co-directing Witness for the Prosecution, which isn’t surprising after making his one and only film as director shortly before—the cult thriller starring Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter (1955). He appeared in only two more significant movie roles among a handful of TV appearances, Under Ten Flags (1960), in which he starred with Van Heflin, and a memorable part in the epic Spartacus (1960).

It was also nearing the end in the most repressive era in the USA’s political history. The popularity and pertinence of courtroom dramas would have been much more relevant in the late 1950s, not so long after the heyday of McCarthyism when many Hollywood stars were going through real, and much less entertaining, courtroom dramas of their own.

Wilder believed that the laws to protect public decency in the USA, apart from being outmoded and reactionary, had ruined his adaptation of The Seven Year Itch, although its content was still considered rather raunchy, for the time, and managed to raise a few eyebrows. With Witness for the Prosecution he more skilfully skirts the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code (more often referred to as The Hays Code after its Presbyterian creator Will H. Hays—not to be confused with British comedy legend Will Hay!)

Alfred Hitchcock had also deliberately crossed the line several times, but Witness for the Prosecution was the first major film to openly challenge its three overarching principles and continue eroding the hold that the Code had exerted on Hollywood productions since it had been made legally enforceable back in 1934.

Consider the ‘prime directive’ of the Code: “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Now, without giving too much away, the audience’s sympathies sure do shift during the story as subtle plot twists reveal new information about more than one of the major players. Before those end credits roll, it could be argued that, at least some of the time, we have indeed been sympathising with someone who, in no uncertain terms, has broken the law. Big time.

What about “the law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation”? Okay, the theatre management asked me, very nicely, not to give anything away about ‘the secret of the ending’ but suffice to say you will probably feel some sympathy for a character who has clearly violated the law at least twice over!

The Hays Code also suggested that “correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented” Well, any crime drama is by definition going to venture into a grey area of how this might be interpreted. Although pretty tame by today’s standards, Witness for the Prosecution was no exception.

It obviously helped that it was based on the work of an established and popular author and had already enjoyed two very successful runs in the theatre. Admittedly, Wilder introduced a few new narrative threads, including the risqué flashback to how Vole met his wife in a dodgy nightclub in wartime Germany, but in principal the story had already had a good public airing.

The fact that the main action occurs during a murder trial in court means that certain moral discussions are integral to the story and must be addressed. Most cleverly of all, though, is that the finale is not actually the conclusion.

Hang on, what does that mean? We finish with a very clear challenge to the core principals of the Hays Code, but the end leaves the audience with a moral dilemma and also implies another narrative that is yet to be played out. No, that doesn’t mean things are left open. Believe me, the end is deliciously satisfying, and I found it inappropriately funny in its audacity.

Billy Wilder would go on to ‘rub salt into the wounds’ of the Hays Code, and ensure its eventual decline, with his next film Some Like it Hot (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, which remains one of my favourite comedies. Even with some recent reforms, under the Johnston Administration, the MPAA still refused to give the film a certificate of approval. Luckily for Wilder, this didn’t discourage distributors United Artists and the film went on to be one of the most successful comedies, both critically and at the box office.

If you check the IMDb, you’ll find loads of TV episodes and films recycling the Witness for the Prosecution title and they usually contain a courtroom drama element but have little else in common. The first two screen adaptations of the original story were both in 1949—a TV movie adapted by Sidney Budd and directed by John Glyn-Jones and an episode of The Chevrolet Teletheatre (1948–1950). Another version was aired as an episode of the TV ‘live theatre’ series Danger, in 1950—it was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus who is also credited on the 1957 writing team, as Larry Marcus. Of course, these interpretations all preceded the play’s 1953 stage debut.

It was subsequently featured as an episode of Hollywood Special (1962–63), and was made into another TV movie in 1982, directed by Alan Gibson and starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, and Beau Bridges—both versions drawing heavily on Wilder’s rewrite.

The most recent screen version was a two-part TV Movie in 2016, directed by Julian Jarrold and starred Billy Howle, Kim Cattrall, and Monica Dolan. It was adapted by Sarah Phelps and concentrates much more on the out of court relationships and reworks the ending into something less clever. It’s an altogether more dismal affair that tried to up the ante by introducing darker back stories and an overall tragic tone, turning the whole thing into a metaphor for the First World War and effectively extracting all its entertainment value.

Billy Wilder’s version is destined to remain the definitive one—I mean, it was a perfect storm of political context, inspired casting and a great writer-director at the height of his powers. It’s certainly a wee slice of cinema nostalgia that any film buff needs to be acquainted with. But it’s a testimony to a broader, more lasting appeal that another adaptation of the play was staged at London’s County Hall, earlier this year, garnering four- and five-star reviews across the board. And apparently another remake is currently in production, this time with Ben Affleck as director and star—now, is that really necessary?

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witness for the prosecution

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray. As crisp and clear as possible, in some ways the Old Bailey is shown in such detail that the set looks far too pristine and unblemished!
  • Uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack. Nice and clear.
  • Optional English SDH subtitles.
  • New and exclusive feature length audio commentary by critic Kat Ellinger… who is openly biased, admitting straight off the bat that it’s her favourite film. Throughout the commentary she seems impassioned and evangelical—she really wants you to like this movie! Also, she certainly knows her stuff and flaunts her general movie knowledge, for the most part is talking about other films, whilst assuming the viewer is familiar with every courtroom drama and noirish thriller as well as the filmographies of the entire cast and crew. At times her comments are a little ‘gushing’ and she takes it as read that the viewer is as much a fan as she and so won’t question several sweeping and unqualified statements—including heaping praise on one, frankly terrible, cockney accent as being Oscar-worthy—unless I missed her irony there? In the end her sheer enthusiasm for all aspects of the film is infectious and makes up for any of her gad-fly meanderings.
  • Monocle and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. A 16-minute interview with Simon Callow produced by Fiction Factory in which he pays eloquent tribute to his idol and points out a few interesting behind the scenes facts, such as making the connection with the 1953 theatre production of John Brown’s Body that starred Tyrone Power and was directed by Charles Laughton.
  • A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard. A 25-minute talk by the Professor of Film Studies and prolific writer on the history of cinema. Fans of Billy Wilder may well recognise him from his excellent extra for the Blu-ray release of The Private Live of Sherlock Holmes and will perhaps remember his essay for the collector’s booklet accompanying the Blu-ray of The Apartment (1960). It would’ve been great if he could have joined Kat Ellinger on the audio commentary. I tend to enjoy the two-or three-way conversational approach.
  • Archival footage of Billy Wilder discussing Witness for the Prosecution with director Volker Schlöndorff. 14 minutes of poor quality, yet interesting archival interview taken from a 1992 documentary called Billy, How Do You Do It? I’d already seen this on YouTube and the audio-visual quality isn’t much better here. Apparently the full documentary, in three parts, can be seen on Eureka’s Blu-ray of Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945).
  • A collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film scholar Henry K Miller and critic Philip Kemp. A letter from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder in which she praises his film, saying “You did a wonderful job & I admire the film very much still”; and rare archival imagery. At 44 pages this is no token ‘freebie’ and has some nicely presented promotional material, such as rarer posters and stills plus some very informative writings. Any serious collector’s edition should really have a booklet like this!
  • Reversible Sleeve.

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Cast & Crew

director: Billy Wilder.
writers: Larry Marcus, Billy Wilder & Harry Kurnitz (based on the novel by Agatha Christie).
starring: 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.

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