When Leonard Vole is arrested for the sensational murder of a rich, middle-aged widow, the famous Sir Wilfrid Robarts agrees to appear on his behalf. Sir Wilfrid, recovering from a near-fatal heart attack, is *supposed* to be on a diet of bland, civil suits. But the lure of the criminal courts is too much for him, especially when the case is so difficult: Vole's only alibi witness is his wife, the calm and coldly calculating Christine Vole. Sir Wilfrid's task becomes even more impossible when Christine agrees to be a witness not for the defence but for the prosecution.
Tyrone Power ... Leonard Steven Vole
Marlene Dietrich ... Christine Helm / Vole
Charles Laughton ... Sir Wilfrid Robarts, lawyer
Elsa Lanchester ... Miss Plimsoll, nurse
John Williams ... Brogan-Moore
Henry Daniell ... Mayhew
Ian Wolfe ... Carter
Torin Thatcher ... Mr. Myers, prosecutor
Norma Varden ... Emily Jane French
Una O'Connor ... Janet McKenzie
Francis Compton ... Judge
Philip Tonge ... Inspector Hearne
Charlie Chaplin was funny. Charles Laughton was witty. As good as 'Witness For The Prosecution' is---Agatha Christie's story, the other actors, the technical expertise---the Oscar-nominated Laughton is THE reason to see this film. What he brings to Billy Wilder's 1957 courtroom thriller is his tremendous wit and intellect. It's a serious story, but the dark-comic tag team of Wilder/Laughton upgraded the film from "a good courtroom mystery" to "a classic of the courtroom genre".
The headlining star, Tyrone Power, sure doesn't help them very much. He plays anguish about as smoothly as ripped sandpaper...and anguish is the unfortunate emotion he's got to play for most of the picture. Power has been accused of murdering a wealthy older woman. His wife (Marlene Dietrich) seems to be doing all she can to sell him out, appearing as...drum roll, please, drummer man...the star witness for the prosecution. Laughton is the brilliant (and ailing) English barrister defending Power. The plot twists 'n' turns a dozen ways from Sunday, just as it always does in Christie's best work.
Amongst all the talk of bloody murder, there are running gags about cigars and alcohol. More dark wit---Laughton's character's poor health might cause him to drop dead at any moment. Wilder weaved thrills and smiles as well as any director. In this, he was wise to anchor the supporting cast with mainstays of the stiff upper lip. John Williams and Ian Wolfe (Hirsch from "WKRP"), not to mention Laughton's control-freak assistant Elsa Lanchester (who was also CL's real-life wife), are bloody good.
Movies of this type have been ripped off so often that students of the "don't give away the ending" class are bound to figure it out. I did. That hardly mattered because there were STILL more surprises to come. Through all that plot, Dietrich winds up being the most fascinating character. Project back and you'll realize how well her performance works. But she & Power are merely the star attractions in 'Witness For The Prosecution'. The main dish is Charles Laughton. Considering how ironic and cynical our society has become, it's stunning that brilliant old pros like Wilder and Laughton aren't more popular today. After this movie, they've become personal heroes of mine.
A film I have not seen for years but will always remember with fondness. A classic thriller with all the right ingredients - Power and Dietrich are spectacular, and, by early standards (and recent ones!), the twist is excellent.
Charles Laughton however, provides us with a glib chuckle as the aging defense attorney ruled by his overlord maid. A distraction that only adds to an excellent plot line.
I can't imagine another film of the genre and the era, that so wickedly entangles the essential thriller with a 'crime of passion' (oops, spot the plot killer...) gem. A classic.
Billy Wilder is a director with an understanding of cinema that is almost unmatched throughout the medium's entire history - that's why his films are always so good. Witness for the Prosecution is yet another highlight in the great director's history, and it proves that courtroom dramas can be both riveting and a great opportunity for some first rate comedy. Wilder's film features one of the most well paced plots I've ever seen in a film, and it's a plot that includes some very finely tuned twists. Towards the end, Wilder bombards us with twist after twist, each one both making sense and topping the one before it. In a time when people are impressed by films such as 'The Sixth Sense', Billy Wilder still shows us how to skilfully attribute a twist into a film's plot. The plot itself follows the story of Sir Wilfrid Robarts; an ace defence lawyer that has been told that his health won't allow him to tackle anything more than mundane cases, but is brought back into the fray when a case involving the murder of an elderly woman comes into his hands. Wilfrid must now juggle the case and his health as he attempts to keep the young man from being sent down.
Like all Wilder films, this one is a very pleasurable viewing. Wilder manages to find a middle ground between substance and entertainment, and so this is a film that will please fans of both aspects. The film is deliriously entertaining throughout, with some truly great lines of dialogue (most of which is very quotable) and every twist adds a new level to the story. The substance comes from a multitude of angles, and themes of love, health, sacrifice and most notably, justice, are all more than prevalent. The acting is certainly of note in Witness for the Prosecution. Charles Laughton is absolutely sublime as the undermining and stubborn Wilfrid Robarts; his performance is very strong, and makes up the backbone of the film. The main supporting performance comes from Marlene Dietrich. I'm not a big fan of hers; despite having a great pair of legs, she just doesn't do anything for me, but in this film she brings sufficient coldness to her character and really makes it her own. The final main performance comes from Tyrone Power; he isn't as great as the other two, but does enough with his character to ensure he's believable. Highly recommended viewing!
A clever, character-driven courtroom drama, it deserved the Academy Award nominations that it received in 1958, and it has justly endured to the present day. Starring the terrific talents of Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and particularly Marlene Dietrich, directed by Billy Wilder, and based on the superb short story by Agatha Christie, it is a combination has all of the very best ingredients, and delivers a nearly outstanding film.
The movie centers around Laughton's character, an aged, feisty, and very canny English barrister (lawyer) who is in poor health and headed toward retirement. The opening of the movie is entirely Laughton's show, as he portrays a curmudgeonly and endearing character. On his first day home from the hospital, he soon takes up the defense of Leonard Vole (Power) a man who is charged with murder and up against a barrage of circumstantial evidence. Power is convincing as the honest and somewhat naive defendant, in increasingly over his head. Soon, Dietrich makes her entrance as Vole's cool German femme fatal of a wife. After a few flashbacks to set up the story of the murder case, Laughton takes up Vole's case. What ensues is a well-written and well-directed courtroom drama, in which Laughton continues to shine, delivering a convincing performance peppered with humor. Soon, the story takes a series of dramatic twists, during which Power plays his part as the beleaguered defendant to the hilt and Dietrich uses the gifts that made her a legend. By the end, the audience has been treated to an excellent drama with sensational acting.
The result is a classic, but not an icon in the sense that Christie's short story, penned twenty years earlier, would become. While it may be the best-regarded of all Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express a possible exception), the movie does not seem to have the stature it ought to have. At the end of the movie, I did not feel the same as when I read the story, and not just because I knew all along how it would turn out. With such visible talent on all fronts, I took a long look at what it was, and what was missing. The answer: Christie.
The movie is good in its own right, but from the beginning misses the crucial aspect that the original story has: the mystery. Agatha Christie is the master of suspense, and throughout the story, that suspense, that anxiousness to know what will happen next, the eagerness to know where this next twist will lead, and the shock that comes at the very end, were what the story was all about. The direction the movie went, the legal thriller, substituted drama for mystery, and while the movie only added to the story, changing very little of what Christie wrote, the movie lost the grip that only she could create. Christie treated the courtroom proceedings (the centerpiece of the movie) with brevity, focusing on the intrigue surrounding the case. Also, the Hollywood ending overdoes it a little bit, and deprives the most important plot twist of some of its its emotional impact.
That said, however, the movie is still a classic. Fortunately, the heart of the story was still very strong, with a unique plot and rich characters, which were taken advantage of by Wilder and the cast, respectively. And, as it turns out, the movie is a good complement to the story. To those who have only seen the movie, the story should be read to truly appreciate the missing value of the mystery. To those who have read the story, the movie nails the characters (particularly Dietrich's Mrs. Vole). All in all, I give this movie a 9 out of 10, and would gladly see it again.
* This was the final film for Tyrone Power, who died shortly after completion.
* The film was shown in London for a Royal Command Performance, but beforehand the Royal Family had to promise not to reveal the surprise ending to anyone else.
* Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester (the nurse, Miss Plimsoll) were real-life husband and wife.
* The studio where filming was going on had an agreement hanging outside the door that everyone who came in had to sign, promising they would not reveal the surprise ending.
* Unsure if he could play a man with a heart condition, Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid) staged a heart attack in the pool one day at home. His wife, Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), and a houseguest panicked and pulled him from the water, at which point he explained his trick. Elsa's reaction has not been recorded.
* 'Una O'Connor' was the only member of the original Broadway cast of the play to repeat her role on film.
* In order to show just one of Marlene Dietrich's famous legs, an entire scene was written that required 145 extras, 38 stunt men and $90,000.
* When Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) meets Mrs. French (Norma Varden) for the second time - in the movie theater - Vole tells Mrs. French that the movie is about Jesse James. Tyrone Power starred as the famous outlaw in Jesse James (1939)
* There is a Bride of Frankenstein (1935) connection to this motion picture, both Elsa Lanchester and 'Una O'Connor' costarred in that monster classic.
* Marlene Dietrich was so certain she would be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Christine Vole that she recorded a new introduction to her Las Vegas show mentioning her nomination. She was not nominated, and was crushed.
* This was 'Una O'Connor' 's last big screen motion picture.
* While it is generally supposed that Agatha Christie chose the name Vole after the ratlike rodent of the same name, in fact the word has several other meanings also relevant to this character. In cards, a "vole" means the winning by one player of all the tricks of a game. And the expression "go the vole" can mean either to venture everything on the chance of great rewards, or to try one thing after another, usually a variety of occupations -- all perfect descriptions of Christie's ingeniously named "Leonard Vole".
* Charles Laughton appears as himself, talking directly to the audience, in the lengthy 4 minute trailer.
* Alfred Hitchcock said "Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed Witness for Prosecution. They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder's. And Wilder told me people asked him about The Paradine Case, thinking he had done it."
* The press book, reviews and various articles about the production stated that the principal cast members themselves did not even know the ending of the film until the last day of shooting, when the final ten pages of the script were presented to them.
* The film followed the basic story of Agatha Christie's play, but director and co-screenwriter Billy Wilder opened up the story by including numerous scenes that did not take place solely in the courtroom, as the play had, and changed the emphasis from "Leonard Vole" to "Sir Wilfrid Robarts." The character of "Miss Plimsoll" was added to the film, and the name of Leonard Vole's wife "Romaine" was changed to "Christine."
* The courtroom setting, which cost $75,000 to build, was a recreation of an actual courtroom in London's Central Criminal Courts, The Old Bailey.
* Charles Laughton modeled his characterization of "Sir Wilfrid Robarts," including the use of a monocle to intimidate Leonard, on Florance Guedella, an Englishman who was both Laughton's and Marlene Dietrich's lawyer and who was famous for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.
* William Holden was the first choice for Leonard, but he was unavailable. Billy Wilder and the producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. then went to Tyrone Power, who turned down the part. Other actors considered for the role included Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, and even Roger Moore. Eventually, Tyrone Power accepted the role when he was offered both Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) for $300,000 each. Before he could complete Solomon however, Power had a fatal heart attack and was replaced by Yul Brynner. Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were also considered for the role of Christine Helm.
* The Tyrone Power character's last name is Vole. Aside from what has already been mentioned, the word "voleur" in French translates in English to burglar, embezzler, housebreaker, intruder, peculator, robber, and thief. Many of which could apply to Power's character.
SPOILER: To perfect her disguise as the "Cockney Woman", director Billy Wilder did a series of screen tests of Marlene Dietrich. The first attempt almost ended the idea when, after making up Dietrich in wigs, contact lenses, false eyelashes, false teeth and shoulder pads, Wilder commented that she looked less like a Cockney woman on screen and more like "George C. Scott in drag".