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  • Post last modified:March 21, 2021

Witness for the Prosecution: Breaking a Barrister


In my review of And Then There Were None (1945), I wrote that the film could be the best Alfred Hitchcock movie the director never made. The same has been said of Witness for the Prosecution. Obviously, both films have one thing in common – they are based on Agatha Christie stories. In fact, these two films are the very best Christie adaptations made so far. When Marlene Dietrich was approached for the showy lead of this movie, she wanted Billy Wilder to direct. Her wish came true, and it seems like the shoot was fairly harmonious.

For this adaptation of the play, the part of the barrister became much more important, and Charles Laughton was known for being difficult. But according to Wilder, he was a dream to work with.

Can’t resist a new case
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is known all over England as the best barrister around, but his health is failing. Contrary to the advise of his doctors, he takes on a new case that he can’t resist. Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of having murdered a wealthy widow whom he had befriended. There is every reason for the police to suspect Vole, especially since the widow had made him the main beneficiary of her will. However, Sir Wilfrid believes his client. The case becomes more troublesome after a meeting with Vole’s wife, the German-born Christine (Dietrich). She’s a cold woman who doesn’t seem to love her husband, even though he helped her out of a bad marriage in occupied Germany after the war. Christine does not believe that she has any reason to help Leonard off the hook this time…

Two performances in one
The marketing of the movie begged audiences to spread the word, but not reveal the final twist. Spoiler coming up – I need to discuss the twist a little bit. It turns out that a mysterious woman with a cockney accent who contacts Sir Wilfrid with information that saves Leonard’s neck is Christine in disguise (also played by Dietrich). Interestingly, the London and Broadway plays had this ”other woman” in their cast lists ”played” by a pseudonym. All the revelations in the movie come as a great surprise and shock to the brilliant barrister, which makes one wonder just how brilliant he is. Elevating the barrister role the way it is done in the film (but not in the play) is a bit of a problem when the story ends up making him look like a fool.

Watching Dietrich pull off two very different performances (and likely fooling more than one or two audience members) is a treat and she should have been Oscar-nominated for her work, which also echoes her earlier performances in a flashback scene to the first time Christine, then working as a long-legged entertainer, met Leonard in Germany. There is a final outburst of violence near the end that looks stagey and unconvincing, but Wilder is excused because the rest of the movie is so well directed. There is real tension in the courtroom scenes that test the stamina of both Sir Wilfrid and Vole (convincingly played by Power in his last complete movie role), but also a lot of humor that comes with the increased presence of the barrister.

Laughton really looks like he’s having the time of his life. Watching him and his real-life wife (of 30 years) Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfrid’s long-suffering but strict nurse is a huge reason why this movie is so enjoyable; there is much fussing between them, but also genuine concern.

I also loved watching Una O’Connor in her small part as the housekeeper. She’s the only cast member to repeat her Broadway performance and she’s memorable as always, firing off disapproving looks all over the place. Sadly, this was her final performance. 

Witness for the Prosecution 1957-U.S. 114 min. B/W. Produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz. Play: Agatha Christie. Editing: Daniel Mandell. Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole), Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Henry Daniell… Una O’Connor.

Trivia: Remade as a TV movie in 1982 and as a miniseries, The Witness for the Prosecution (2016).

Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Lanchester).

Last word: “Marlene was forever up at our house, trying on scarves, shawls, and various wigs, and taking lessons in Cockney from Charles. She was obsessed with this impersonation. I never saw anyone work so hard.” (Lanchester, TCM)



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