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)

The Seduction of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

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Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS was the top grossing film of 1932 (in US and Canada)- at the apex of the salacious Pre-Code era. With good reason.

This exotic film takes us on a journey via rail in Northern China from Peking to Shanghai. There’s a uniquely diverse group of passengers that sometimes clash and sometimes simmer for the ride. Ultimately, each are surprised to find out who can be trusted, and who should be feared, when they become directly embroiled in local politics and civil unrest. And when old flames rekindle things really start to sizzle.

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Marlene Dietrich portrays Shanghai Lily, along with her traveling companion, Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, and they make a HELLUVA entrance. Shanghai Lily is mysterious, drop-dead gorgeous and with every little movement she poses draped in the most stunning fashions, enveloped in the most sensuous glowing light and shadows. Her boudoir reputation precedes her.

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Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

As for Ms. Anna May Wong’s Hui Fei, she is one tough lady and not to be messed with. While Hui Fei projects street-wise, her striking companion is apparently bedroom savvy. Like Shanghai Lily, she also carries herself with high style and a penetrating beauty.

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Clive Brook plays Captain “Doc” Harvey. He’s a suave military man and a former lover to Shanghai Lily. He’s apprehensive to her flirtations at first with the promiscuous rumors. As hard as he tries to avoid falling for her, in the end, and via her sacrifices that reveals her love for him, her undeniable sexual appeal and their love prevail.

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As for the rest of the cast of key characters, Warner Oland (most famous for his many turns as Charlie Chan) is untrustworthy Mr. Henry Chang. Lawrence Grant is Reverend Carmichael, who discovers there’s more to Shanghai Lily than a tarnished reputation. Louise Glosser Hale is the uptight, prude Mrs. Haggerty.  And Eugene Pallette is spectacular as the hilarious Sam Salt.

For comic relief, Eugene Pallette’s Sam Salt delivers the most witty lines. Keep in mind that by today’s standards they are blatantly racist, but there’s something about his delivery (thanks to that lovable Pallette way) that makes us laugh at his non-PC ignorance of Chinese culture, rather than the 1932 audiences that likely laughed with him. As my daughter pointed out, he’s sorta a Pre-Code Peter Griffin (Family Guy reference):

Sam Salt: “I can’t make head or tail outta’ you, Mr. Chang. Are you Chinese, or are you white, or what are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “My mother is Chinese. My father was white.”
Sam Salt: “You look more like a white man to me.”
Mr. Henry Chang: “I’m not proud of my white blood.”
Sam Salt: “Oh, you’re not, are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “No, I’m not.”
Sam Salt: “Rather be a Chinaman, huh?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “Yes.”
Sam Salt: “What future is there in bein’ a Chinaman? You’re born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country! Let’s have a drink!”

Sam Salt: “I don’t know what you’re saying brother… but don’t say it again.”

Along with these inappropriately funny moments, the other characters provide us entertainment in just how uncomfortable they are just to be near Shanghai Lily, as though her ill-repute will somehow rub off. But what really makes this film is not these things, nor the story (although those are all great), it’s the visual telling of the story… through dramatic, jaw-dropping fashions and through the so-hot-the-screen-steams images of Marlene Dietrich.

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When you consider Marlene Dietrich’s personal life as well as her behind the scenes relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, this performance may not come as a surprise. She was brilliant in understanding how to convey her image on screen in just the perfect light and shadows. That is, she was the perfect student of Josef von Sternberg’s teachings in these skills (skills she utilized the remainder of her life.)

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But when you add in Dietrich’s own extremely sexual persona, it’s no wonder this film unravels as though we the audience are experiencing one long seduction directly from the empress of Pre-Code seduction herself. Let’s face it, she isn’t really seducing the ilk of glossy smooth Clive Brook. The camera is the object of her desire. And we all benefit in her aim.

This perspective on SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) is my contribution to the “Hot & Bothered Blogathon” as hosted by those saucy bloggers Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora of Citizen Screen, July 9-10. Explore both of their sites to read more lustful and licentious posts.

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