Ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts is thrust back into the courtroom in what becomes one of the most unusual and eventful murder case of the lawyer’s career when he finds himself defending Leonard Vole, a man being tried for the murder of a wealthy woman. With Robarts choosing to represent him, the two find themselves up against Leonard’s cold-hearted wife, Christine – who, in a surprising turn of events, chooses to appear in court against her husband.Written by Kyle Perez
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Agatha Christie (in Agatha Christie’s international stage success), Billy Wilder (screen play) | 2 more credits »
Stars: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton |
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), a master barrister in ill health, takes on Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) as a client, despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who says the doctor warns him against taking on any criminal cases. Leonard is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French, a rich, older widow who had become enamoured of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Leonard as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid believes Vole is innocent.
When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Leonard’s German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi, although by no means an entirely convincing one. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when, at the end of the trial, she is summoned as a witness by the prosecuting barrister. While a wife can not be compelled to testify against her husband, Christine was in fact still married to a German man when she wed Leonard (who was in the Royal Air Force and part of the occupation forces in Germany). She testifies that Leonard admitted to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and that her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth.
During the trial in the Old Bailey, Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman who, for a fee, provides him with letters written by Christine herself to a mysterious lover named Max. The affair revealed by this correspondence gives Christine such a strong motive to have lied that the jury finds Leonard not guilty.
However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was “…too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical!” His belief proves correct when Christine, left alone with him by chance in the courtroom, informs him that he had help in winning the case. Sir Wilfrid had told her before the trial that “…no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife”. So, she had instead given testimony implicating her husband, had then forged the letters to the non-existent Max, and had herself in disguise played the mysterious woman handing over the letters which then discredited her own testimony and led to the acquittal. She furthermore admits that she saved Leonard even though she knew he was guilty because she loves him.
Leonard has overheard Christine’s admission and, now protected by double jeopardy, cheerfully confirms to Sir Wilfred that he had indeed killed Mrs. French. Sir Wilfrid is infuriated at being had by them both. Christine also suffers a major shock when she finds Leonard has met a younger woman and is now going abroad with her. In a jealous rage, Christine grabs a knife earlier used as evidence (and subtly highlighted by Sir Wilfrid’s monocle light-reflection), and stabs Leonard to death. After she is taken away by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on Christine’s defence.
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.
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.”
Elsa Lanchester used to delight in broadcasting Marlene Dietrich‘s secrets. Although Dietrich was never secretive about her famous “tape lifts,” Lanchester detailed their use to anyone who would listen (One of the most avid listeners was Charles Laughton, who urged a make-up man to steal one so he could try it). The lifts were stuck to the side of Dietrich’s head where she wanted skin to be lifted. Then the long threads hanging from them were woven into hair at the back of her head, forcing the tabs to pull the skin very tight. A wig then covered the network of tabs and threads. Lanchester joked that Dietrich wouldn’t dare to pull or twist her face for fear of loosening a lift. In the film, one can see how Dietrich rarely breaks the cold passiveness of her expression and moves her whole body rather than her head.
Charles Laughton, who could be moody and difficult, was apparently a dream to work with, throwing himself into the role with dedication and delight. Billy Wilder later recalled a day that was set aside just for shooting reaction shots of the jury and courtroom crowd (composed of extras hired only for the day). Normally, the assistant director would read the actors’ lines and the extras would react. However, Laughton, who was fascinated with the whole process of filmmaking, begged to help. So he came in on his day off and read all of the off-camera speeches for the jury members. He read not only his part, but also the judge’s, the prosecutor’s and even Marlene Dietrich‘s. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow in his book “Billy Wilder in Hollywood”, the author said, “it was an exhibition of craftsmanship such as Wilder had never seen. He believes that Charles Laughton had the greatest technical range and power of any actor, man or woman, whom he has known.”
Producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small bought the rights to the play for $450,000. The play was adjusted to build up the character of the defence barrister. Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.According to Wilder, when the producers approached Dietrich about the part she accepted on the condition that Wilder direct. Wilder said Dietrich liked “to play a murderess” but was “a little bit embarrassed when playing the love scenes.”
Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was well known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.
In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers. A rowdy customer conveniently rips them down one side, revealing one of Dietrich’s renowned legs, and starting a brawl. The scene required 145 extras, 38 stuntmen and $90,000.