WITNESS for the PROSECUTION (1957)

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION: Billy Wilder Film Study

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Billy Wilder was known for his reverence for the structure of a screenplay, and subsequently, it influenced his films. In particular, he preferred that all screenplays and films be constructed in a three chapter format like a good play. Agatha Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was an international success on stage, and being tossed around as a possible film adaptation by producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. The producers approached Marlene Dietrich to play the iconic role of Christine Vole (Vivian Leigh was also considered). Her only condition was that her friend, Billy Wilder, direct.

CREDITS:

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Produced by: Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (Edward Small Productions)

Screenplay by: Billy Wilder, Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1925 original story

CAST:

Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, the accused

Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm, the accused’s wife

Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C., senior counsel for Vole

Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid’s private nurse

John Williams as Mr. Brogan-Moore, Sir Wilfrid’s junior counsel in the trial

Henry Daniell as Mr. Mayhew, Vole’s  solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case

Ian Wolfe as H. A. Carter, Sir Wilfrid’s chief clerk and office manager

Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers Q.C., the Crown prosecutor

Norma Varden as Mrs. Emily Jane French, the elderly woman who was murdered

Una O’Connor as Janet McKenzie, Mrs. French’s housekeeper and a prosecution witness

Francis Compton as Mr. Justice Wainwright, the judge

Philip Tonge as Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer

Ruta Lee as Diana… She’s a young woman watching the trial, waiting for Leonard to be freed.  *(I had the immense pleasure of screening this film with Ruta Lee presenting a Q & A intro of her experience in this film at the 2018 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. She was even more of a crowd-cheering delight than you could even imagine- with all the Hollywood glamour and effervescent energy decades younger than her eighty-five years.)

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Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is essentially the same courtroom drama as Agatha Christie created, but Wilder enhanced the plot by playing up an extended focus on key characters. This was especially true for the witty banter between Elsa Lanchester’s nurse Plimsoll and Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid. I don’t know what the Hollywood obsession is with fawning over cantankerous, obstinate men, but the formula has worked well. The two actors were married in real life, in a marriage of mutual convenience as Laughton was gay and Lanchester had more ambitions for a career than for a traditional family dynamic. It was said that both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton had a crush on Tyrone Power.

Elsa Lanchester and husband Charles Laughton on the French Riviera in 1938

Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton on the French Riviera- the couple were married (of convenience) in real life.

Tyrone Power; Marlene Dietrich; Witness for the…

Both Dietrich and Laughton had crushes on Tyrone Power- can we blame them? 

The film starts with barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) coming back home after several weeks of recovery from a heart attack. His doctors’ orders are to avoid stress; no murder trials especially. And yet, that’s exactly what he does. His new client, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) challenges his curious mind through a maze of challenges of incriminating evidence, including a surprising show of loyalty from his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich).

There were concerns that Power looked older than his part due to years of alcoholism. In an odd twist of fate, even though it’s Laughton’s character that is constantly under a microscope for a bad ticker, Tyrone Power is the one who (in real life) succumbed to a heart attack during filming of his very next film, SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959). As such, he was unable to complete that film, and Yul Brenner was brought in to complete. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) was also the last motion picture feature for Una O’Connor. Her role provides comic relief, thanks to the enhanced dialogue.

Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton and director Billy Wilder on the set of _Witness for the Prosecution_ 1957_

Billy Wilder enjoyed working with both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, admiring their professionalism greatly. From “Conversations with Wilder,” Wilder chatted about this in detail with Cameron Crowe…

BW: “Laughton was everything that you can dream of, times ten. We would stop shooting at six o’clock, and we would go up to my office and would be preparing for next day’s shooting. There were twenty versions of the way he could do a scene, and I would say, “ That’s it! All right!” And then the next day, on the set, he comes and he says, “I thought of something else.” And that was version number twenty-one. Better and better all the time. He was a tremendous presence. Tremendous presence, and a wonderful instrument, wonderful vocal instrument. When he spoke to the audience, they were very quiet. Because they knew. He did not just speak. He said something. And the sum total of it was a great performance. He only got one (Academy) Award, for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY the VIII (1933). But he was an absolute marvel.”    

Vista on Instagram_ “Witness For The Prosecution (1957) An American Thriller Film Directed And Co-Adapted By_ Billy Wilder Based On A Novel Of The Same Name By…”

Secrecy is a critical element to the success of this film. Not unlike how Alfred Hitchcock handling of PSYCHO, the audience is firmly instructed to not reveal the climatic ending. Even the cast and crew were sworn to secrecy with the last 10 pages of the script saved until the final day of shooting.

The setting is prepared for Billy Wilder's fabulous courtroom drama _Witness for the Prosecution_, 1957_

Prepping the set

The Sketch Artist_ 18 Classic Film Costume Designs by Edith Head

Edith Head costume design for Marlene Dietrich in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)

As for the Hitchcockian feel of this film, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder’s. And Wilder told me people asked him about THE PARADINE CASE (1947), thinking he had done it.” 

BILLY WILDER & MARLENE DIETRICH - 1948

It was well-received by critics, fans, and at the box office. Even Agatha Christie herself said at the time that it was the only film adapted from one of her stories that she actually liked. (Later, she also enjoyed the Sidney Lumet version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974).) While WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was nominated for several awards, including 6 Oscars (including Best Picture nom), Marlene Dietrich was not one of them. She was so confident that she would be an Academy Award nominee, however, that she prepared the news to be included in her Las Vegas show opener. Alas, that never came to fruition.

Tyrone Power admires Norma Varden's hat in…

One more tidbit that I found of personal interest (and yes, spoilers abound). Ageism is a running theme in this story- with the challenge of aging actors behind the scenes. We see Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, portrayed as the gold digger wooing Emily French (Norma Varden), depicted as the older widow of means. Furthermore, we are led to believe Dietrich as his war bride is somewhat more age appropriate to him than, say, a 22 year-old Ruta Lee. The 43 year old actor Tyrone Power’s aging reflected his ill health, but his charm and good looks persuade us to not believe our own eyes. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s master skills in camera lighting and makeup make us believe that there was a much wider age gap between Christine Vole and Emily French than in reality. (Dietrich was 56 years old and Norma Varden was 59 at the time of this film’s release.) I may chalk this up to yet another case for women actors being forced to play either much younger roles, (with the enhancement of makeup, lighting, and plastic surgery) or spinsters in their 40s and 50s. Despite the hodgepodge of ages, we are pulled into the superb performances and timeless storytelling for a classic courtroom drama of suspense that continues to captivate.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Comments

  1. I watched this recently with my son who enjoyed it and was kept guessing until the end. It’s also a film worth watching again, once you know the plot, just to see who is “acting” and how they portray themselves in those roles.

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  2. ricorites says:

    Hi, I love ‘Witness’ but the age game is hard to get past. I’m always shocked at how dissipated Tyrone Power looked at 43, just as he did playing the young Hemingway hero Jake in ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ with Ava Gardner, also heading down the same road. I think the reason Wilder cast an older actress to play Ty’s wife was to make him seem younger. But this is how old Hollywood rolled! Rick

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  3. Linda Sandahl says:

    I don’t believe Tyrone Power was an alcoholic. For one thing, after making this film he went on to some highly successful stage productions, namely the London production of Mister Roberts, in 1950, and John Brown’s Body, which toured across America in 1952-53. He may have had problems with PTSD from his wartime service, which was usually kept hidden in those days. But starring throughout the run of a play is strenuous, and somebody who is drinking heavily is unlikely to be able to do it.

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  4. Did you know that Miss Plimsoll the nurse is not a character in the play WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION?
    Billy Wilder had the character written into the screenplay so Elsa Lanchester could appear in the movie with Charles Laughton (something they hadn’t done much in the past).
    You’d be surprised at how many people pick up the play and are shocked to see that the nurse isn’t in it …

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