Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness_for_the_Prosecution_1958_Movie_Poster_2_fhysi_movieposters101(com)

Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

As a British national treasure, this 1920s short story/play eventually became a Billy Wilder film in 1957. Ben Lawrence’s July 2015 article published in The Telegraph  is helpful for those who know little about Agatha Christie‘s sleuths such as the married couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Why is Dame Christie the most translated, the third most published author–behind Shakespeare and the Bible–and whose 1952 play, The Mouse Trap, still shows in London at ST. MARTINS THEATER? She was able to hit a nerve for supplying intelligent stories, suspenseful plots and comedic characters without offense. She is an icon of the modern detective story. All things that are yummy and cheeky and beautifully expressed by the English language are represented in her stories. In short, her 65 detective novels provided entertainment and influenced multiple generations in the 20th century. For me, her work functions as a perfect insight to 20th century culture, like ethics, gender norms, and how a dominant culture dealt with limited technology.

Is she prosaic and dated today? Oh, I suppose so, if you compare her stories with today’s obsession for shocking realism, technological “advances”, and our androgynous world. Agatha Christie is still classy in my book. Will younger readers and lovers of a good mystery story appreciate her?  Shakespeare and the Bible are still read, so why not Agatha Christie?  I suggest a modern biopic to boost awareness of this marvelous woman. Has anyone heard anything about director Will Gluck’s action/drama, Agatha

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 

This post is for my friend Rob at MOVIE ROB who is featuring the theme of courtroom dramas in film. I chose this Billy Wilder drama starring Tyrone Power in his last role, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton because I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks, Rob, for giving me the excuse to explore this provocative film.

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman after she bequeaths a large sum of money to him. Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is the curmudgeon barrister who agrees to defend him. Enter his wife, Christine, who is the core of the film–is she an ally or foe? The film progresses at a steady pace as the mystery unfolds. It’s the ending where all the shocks and significant twists come into play. If you like surprise endings, the film is worth following. Adapted and written by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, the sharp dialogue and witticisms highlight Wilder’s talent.

Charles Laughton (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as his nagging nurse are the comic relief and show the human side of “the fox” Sir Wilfrid. His antics to smoke and drink while ignoring his doctor’s orders is a charming balance to the austere Christine; one would expect her to help her husband, but she decides to be a witness for the prosecution. She is a callous, manipulating she-cat. Or is she? Marlene is perfect in the role. 9/10 

     Miss Plimsoll: Is there too much of a draft? Should I roll up the window?

     Sir Wilfrid: Just roll up your mouth, you talk too much. If I had known how much you talk I’d never have come out of my        coma. 

I don’t dare reveal spoilers, so I will share some fun trivia from IMDb:

Did you know that Laughton and Lanchester were real-life husband and wife?

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.

Orson Welles helped Marlene Dietrich create a fake nose and scar for her Cockney disguise.

Alfred Hitchcock said “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution. 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.”

When the film was released, Agatha Christie said it was the only movie based on one of her stories she had actually liked. Later, after Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was filmed, she said she liked that one, too.

What do you think of Agatha Christie? What do you think about Witness for the Prosecution? 

46 thoughts on “Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Add yours

  1. I clicked the link to The Telegraph article but it isn’t working.
    Have the WordPress gremlins struck again?

      1. I love Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None; although for the life of me I can’t understand why she diluted the ending for the stage-play. Christie and Wodehouse were a staple of my childhood, as were all the Ian Fleming books, I’m not sure how they’d sit with the under 30 crowd today though. The youngsters in my family don’t seem to read any books at all.

        When it comes to Witness for the Prosecution I always imagined I’d be in for a second-tier Wilder (if there is such a thing), so I was pleasantly surprised to find it is is up there with his very best. It’s probably my third favourite Wilder film right behind Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole.

        1. Hi Paul. Yes, for our generation, it was a staple. Her work has influenced many. Cliches originated with her (if you know what I mean). I haven’t seen Ace in the Hole –ugh — what’s wrong with me? I felt the same way about Wilder–there’s many a Wilder film I love, and some that seemed too ludicrous to buy into. I, too, was very happy Witness for the Prosecution was well adapted and expertly delivered. Thanks, my friend.

  2. I live both the Agatha Christie books and the Wilder picture. Youdid an excellent job of appraising both. I had never thought about Christie being dated, feeling that her books have universal and timeless appeal.

        1. Ha! You’re calling me out. Sigh. Ludicrous is probably harsh. It’s his comedies I have a hard time staying through. I’m probably one of the only few people on the planet that doesn’t find Some Like it Hot funny. I love Jack Lemmon, don’t get me wrong. Wacky comedy doesn’t make me laugh, usually.

          1. i dont like some like it hot either, but that is because of monroe. were maclaine in that role, i would have loved it. i thought you might have been referring to the lemmon-matthau comedies.

  3. I actually just saw an Agatha Christie adaptation, Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express which was on PBS. This one sounds good Cindy, I didn’t know this was directed by Billy Wilder. I generally like his work.

  4. Ah yes! … a joy to witness Laughton take command of the court and deliver his dialogues in sonorous tones. Delicious. “Dated”?? HAA! Not many actors like this group around these days.

  5. Good post of one of my favorite movie and favorite author. I tried to find out about the Gluck’s AGATHA, but found nothing. I hope it will be better than the AGATHA with Dustin Hoffman. I really enjoy all the various actresses playing Miss Marple, even Margaret Rutherford, even if it is far away from Christie’s stories as it can be.

    1. Hi Don, so glad you dropped by to comment. I don’t know about Gluck either or when it’s going to be released or if it will be worth watching. I’m most familiar with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. I regret I missed watching Geraldine McEwan in the part. They both were recognized. Do you have a preference?

      1. No preference, I like them both. Christie once said she hoped Hickson would someday play Miss Marple.
        I like getting the DVDs at the library of both of them in the same story and comparing how they differ.

  6. Love this movie, Cindy, and I remember the very day I went to St. Martins to see The Mouse Trap. Good heavens, it must be 25 years ago now. But it was my first introduction to Christie’s work. And I loved it. I still do.
    And I also love that bit of trivia about the cost and manpower to bring one woman’s leg to light and film. Brilliant bit!

  7. I have read many of Agatha Christie books, but my daughter has probably read them all. She is a huge fan. Thank you for sharing this post – learned something new, and also refreshed my memory 🙂

  8. I saw this film for the first time about two years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Laughton and Dietrich are so damn good in it. I definitely need to seek out more of Dietrich’s works.

    1. Hi Courtney! Yes, this was my first experience watching it. I was happily amused with the ending. I would like to see ‘Morocco’ and I’m still mad at myself for not seeing ‘The Blue Angel’ yet.

  9. I always learn so much from your posts! I have never heard of that author but now I want to read something by her.

    Thanks again for the advice regarding my story btw, they are points that I’m still thinking about as I continue the story. Chapter V will be up soon, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

    Anyways, great and informative post Cindy, which I’ve come to expect from you 🙂

  10. Love those facts about Dietrich. Surely the most costly legs in the business?!
    I had to re-read some Christe recently and I must admit that whilst the stories remain compelling, the writing didn’t exactly live up to my memory. She’s still an exceptional crime novelist though! I think this is my favourite screen adaptation of her work.

  11. Just found this, as I hadn’t been able to link to it previously.

    Living in the UK, we are treated to Agatha Christie, in one form or another, on a daily basis. I checked the weekend TV listings, as an example. We had a new version of ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ on BBC1, (not my favourites) a Miss Marple full-length drama, ( played by Joan Hickson) and another chance to see an old Poirot episode, with the marvellous David Suchet. There was also a showing of ‘Murder on The Orient Express’, with Albert Finney as Poirot, (not as good as Suchet) and another channel showed ‘The Mirror Crack’d’, with Elizabeth Taylor, from 1980.

    Anyway, back to the film. Laughton is just masterful in the role. I could watch him all the time anyway. ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘Rembrandt’, etc, etc. It has a great script, and these days, also offers an interesting look at the period. Despite her pedigree, I was less impressed with Dietrich. The London accent is awful, and would convince no-one. And as for the ‘twist’, I got it early on, and that was as a teenager. That aside, it remains a wonderful film, and is always a delight to watch.

    I remember the film ‘Agatha’ (1979) with Vanessa Redgrave in the role. I enjoyed it at the time.
    And add me to the list of those who don’t like ‘Some Like It Hot.’

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Hi Pete! Marlene wasn’t supposed to be
      British, she was collected from Germany and brought over, saved from the cellar bar by Tyrone Power….I love the Redgrave sisters so much. I wish they were both 20 so I could watch another life time of roles and films they star in. Thank you for sharing. We, in the states, have to go searching for Agatha Christie. That was my thought initially. I can’t think of many teenagers or adults who know who she is!

      1. I know she was a German, and saved from a bar by Power. It was just that Cockney accent in the witness box that I remember. She did her best, I’m sure I like her a lot, and I have seen The Blue Angel many times. She’s also great in Touch of Evil, opposite Orson Welles.

        I was surprised that one of your commenters mentioned not knowing who she was. I thought I must be getting too old. Her work is on so often here, people are generally tired of it, which is sad.
        Best wishes, Pete.

        1. Hiya old-timer. I’m right there with you. Can you believe in class last year I was talking about George Harrison and 1/4 of them did not know who he was! Our cultural imprints lose their power if enough time goes by.

  12. Hi, Cindy.

    I caught ‘Witness For The Prosecution’ again last Saturday on Turner Classic Movies, ‘The Essentials’.

    Superb film, flawlessly cast. And positively seething with an eerie attention to detail and classic Hitchcock shot on a sound stage vibe.

    Tyrone Power excels as a sap. Elsa Lanchester is perfect as Laughton’s housekeeper who knows Sir William better than he knows himself. While Laughton takes everything in through his sometime light reflecting monocle. And Marlene Dietrich steals every scene she is in. Twists and all!

    If you want to get another glimpse of Mr. Power’s darker side. Look for an old Noir-ish B&W gem, ‘Nightmare Alley’. About a one time carnival fortune teller’s rise and bottomless fall in West Coast celebrity.

    Dame Agatha’s Poiroit never did much for me. Though, her Miss Marple can’t be beat for attention to detail, manners and morals in English countryside manor Drawing Room murders!

    The foundation of myriad tales, heroes and heroines ages later. From ‘The Snoop Sisters’, to contemporary, BBC-America (PBS) ‘Foyle’s War’, ‘Morse’, ‘Inspector Lewis’ and ‘Rosemary & Thyme’!

    1. Hiya Kevin. I really appreciate your commentary about a topic you obviously know a lot about. I enjoy hearing experts on the subject ;). I haven’t seen a lot of Tyrone Power films. I will check out Nightmare Alley, for sure! 🙂

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