“If we had to invent someone to be the ideal woman…we would have to invent Marlene Dietrich.” – Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich enjoyed a long friendship based on mutual admiration. He admired her body, her attitude and her work ethic and she admired his kindness and talent. It’s not a surprise then that Wilder agreed to direct Witness for the Prosecution when Marlene brought the project to his attention adding that she would only appear in the movie if he directed it.
Witness for the Prosecution is based on a short story by Agatha Christie originally titled “Traitor Hands” in 1925 when it was published in Flynn’s Weekly . Christie renamed the story “The Witness for the Prosecution” when it was reprinted in the 1933 collection, “The Hound of Death” in the UK and later in 1948 in “The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories” in the US.
Just after the opening of her hit play “The Mousetrap” in the UK in 1952 producer Peter Saunders approached Agatha Christie about adapting one of her short stories, “The Witness for the Prosecution” into a play. Christie thought herself unqualified to write a courtroom drama, but Saunders persisted and upon completing research she wrote the play in just under a month. The major difference between her original short story and the play was the addition of courtroom scenes, which ultimately changed the ending of the story. She was advised against the changed ending, but Christie held firm and refused to allow the play to open unless the new ending was used. She wrote “[The ending] was what could have happened, what might have happened, and in my view probably what would have happened…” (TACT)
“The Witness for the Prosecution” premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in London on October 28th, 1953 and later at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York on December 16th, 1954. Time Magazine called it “Broadway’s first really bright evening of crime since Dial ‘M’ for Murder… [It] is frequently tense. And when it is not, it manages in the best English fashion to be entertainingly easygoing.” The New York Times called it “one of the best” mystery plays “in the twists of the plot and the expertness of the playing.” “The Witness for the Prosecution” was a great success and ran for 645 performances. It won the New York Drama Critic’s award for Best Foreign Play and its stars two acting Tonys.
Producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small bought the rights to “Witness for the Prosecution” for MGM for the sum of $450,000 under the condition that they would keep Agatha Christie’s ending in tact. Billy Wilder was signed to direct in 1956 – one of the few films he didn’t write – and along with writer Harry Kurnitz wrote a screenplay that built up the character of Sir Wilfrid, the defense barrister by giving him a serious heart condition and adding the character of Miss Plimsoll, the nurse who doesn’t exist at all in Christie’s work. These additions add signature Wilder comic relief to the movie. True to the master craftsman that Wilder was, by the way, both characters and the heart situation are beautifully laid out in the movie’s opening scene.
Aside from those comedic elements Witness is unrecognizable as a Wilder film, in my opinion. It’s more in tune with the work of Alfred Hitchcock in theme and atmosphere. So much so, in fact, that the master of suspense would say he was often approached by people saying that they enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution as if he’d directed it. Come to think of it some of the Wilder humor in this is Hitchcock-brand dark.
Witness for the Prosecution got positive reviews across the board and is considered one of the all-time great courtroom dramas. The movie also received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton), and Best Supporting Actress (Lanchester). Better than all of the nominations perhaps was Agatha Christie’s response after Witness was released. She said it was the only movie based on one of her stories that she actually liked (she would also like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express years later).
While Witness for the Prosecution was being filmed the studio took extraordinary measures to ensure the film’s surprise ending would not be spoiled. Everyone who came onto the set had to sign an agreement promising they would not reveal the ending. When the film was shown in London for a Royal Command Performance the Royal Family had to promise not to reveal the surprise ending. And audience members who attended previews were asked to sign cards that stated, “I solemnly swear I will not reveal the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” I mention these efforts because I do not want to go down in history as the one who spoiled this movie. Witness is more than an effective mystery and is still best served cold. So, do not read on if you haven’t seen Witness for the Prosecution! Instead you should tune into TCM on Saturday at 8 pm est. when the film is airing as part of Marlene Dietrich day on Summer Under the Stars and then come back and let me know what you think. Witness is this week’s the Essentials pick to be discussed by Robert Osborne and Sally Field.
Witness for the Prosecution primary cast:
- Tyrone Power – Leonard Vole, the accused
- Marlene Dietrich – Christine Vole/Helm, the accused’s wife
- Charles Laughton – Sir Wilfrid Robarts, senior counsel for Vole
- Elsa Lanchester – Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid’s private nurse
- John Williams – Mr. Brogan-Moore, Sir Wilfrid’s junior counsel in the trial – another reason why Witness “feels” Hitchcockian as Mr. Williams is a Hitchcock favorite
- Henry Daniell – Mayhew, Vole’s solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case
- Ian Wolfe – Carter, Sir Wilfrid’s clerk and office manager
- Torin Thatcher – Mr. Myers, the prosecutor
- Norma Varden – Mrs Emily French, the murdered woman
- Una O’Connor – Janet McKenzie, Mrs. French’s housekeeper and a prosecution witness
- Francis Compton – the Judge
- Philip Tonge – Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer
- Ruta Lee – Diana, a young woman with a secret, watching the trial. (Ms. Lee will be on the TCM Cruise this year and this is the movie I’d love asking her about.)
Famed barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts takes the case of Leonard Vole, a man accused of murdering a wealthy widow whom he had befriended under suspicious circumstances. The case seems unwinnable with circumstantial evidence all pointing to Vole’s guilt. Sir Wilfrid’s interest is piqued by the challenge despite the protestations of his nurse who’s there to ensure he rests per doctor’s instructions following his serious heart attack.
Expecting an emotional, unsteady woman in Leonard Vole’s German wife Christine Sir Wilfrid is instead met by a cold, composed, rather unaffected woman who nonetheless provides Vole with his alibi. Since she is his only hope she will have to do. It’s a shocker to everyone when during the trial Mrs. Vole is called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution.
Let’s start here – Charles Laughton kicks major buttocks as Sir Wilfrid. Not only does Laughton make for a believably brilliant barrister in the courtroom, he also proves a substantial comedic force. A bravura performance of gesture and tone.
Tyrone Power who gets top billing in Witness delivers a fine performance as well in what would sadly turn out to be his final, complete film. As the accused Power seems to overdo the dramatics a bit at times while on the stand, but once the final surprise is revealed his change in demeanor makes the entire performance gel nicely.
Elsa Lanchester has two purposes in Witness – to supply comic relief and broaden Laughton’s role. As such she’s supreme with that unmistakable voice and delivery, a quirkiness that makes her a standout and adds oodles to our enjoyment of Laughton in the movie. Husband and wife play beautifully opposite each other.
Una O’Connor is the last supporting cast member I’ll point out although the entire Witness for the Prosecution cast is wonderful. This movie happens to be the last Una would make and as a reliably enjoyable character actor she deserves special mention. Also worthy of note is the fact that Ms. O’Connor was the only original cast member in the play to make it into the film. Una plays Janet McKenzie the murder victim’s housekeeper who never warms to Leonard Vole and as a consequence is a prosecution witness. Her turn on the stand measures up to the other great scenes in the film. She is always memorable.
“I’m not an actress — I’m a personality.”
Leonard Vole has just left Sir Wilfrid’s house after their first meeting. The barrister is preparing his junior counsel for their eventual meeting with Mrs. Vole – “Handle her gently. Especially when you break the news of the arrest. Bear in mind she’s a foreigner so be prepared for hysterics or even a fainting spell. Better have smelling salts ready or even a box of tissues and a nip of brandy.”
And then we hear that voice…
“I don’t think that will be necessary…
…I never faint because I’m not sure I will fall gracefully and I never use smelling salts because they puff up the eyes.”
What a fantastic line! Pure Marlene Dietrich. The personality. She makes AN ENTRANCE in each and every scene in the movie with the exception of the one where … I won’t divulge anything. That’s not to say that Dietrich doesn’t deliver a great performance. She does more than that. In fact Marlene’s the selling point in the movie because if she can’t sell this part then what’s the point of Witness for the Prosecution?
There is one curious thing, which is that it’s difficult to tell where Dietrich ends and Christine Vole starts although that may well be intentional. After all we know Dietrich was ever aware of “Dietrich” the legend and clearly Billy Wilder thought a lot about this woman as well, “She has one of the greatest faces in the history of film. Add the accent, the legs, the way she dressed…she doesn’t look like any other human” – so it makes sense that Christine Vole fits Dietrich like a glove – in a carefully catered manner. Dietrich is just that fantastic a creature. And it’s a joy to behold even – as so many mention – for a star past her prime.
Marlene Dietrich had risen to international stardom nearly three decades before Witness with roles as a cabaret performer in Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and Morocco in 1930. It feels familiar then when we see a somewhat shameful scene designed just to show the famous Dietrich legs (or one of them) in Witness for the Prosecution. There she is back as a cabaret singer via a flashback as Leonard Vole recounts how he and Christine met in a German nightclub during the war. We see Marlene wearing trademark trousers singing “I May Never Go Home Anymore” when shouts of “We want legs” turn into a bit of a scuffle until a rowdy soldier conveniently rips her trousers revealing one of the renowned legs (pictured above). The scene required 145 extras, 38 stuntmen and $90,000. (IMDB) Was it worth it? Hell yes! This is Marlene Dietrich. MOVIE STAR. LEGEND.
By all accounts – as a performer or actress whichever you prefer in this case – Dietrich took her work as seriously as she did maintaining the Dietrich mystique. Of her work in Witness for the Prosecution Billy Wilder said “She threw herself into the part with gritty determination approaching it as if she thought her career depended on it” and to her it probably did. Dietrich had high hopes for recognition and an Academy Award nod for this performance. She was crushed when the film’s producers didn’t allow her to be considered for Oscar because doing so would reveal the plot secret, which is too bad since I think she had a great shot at the nomination. I know I would have chosen her over either Elizabeth Taylor in Edward Dmytryck’s Raintree County or Lana Turner in Mark Robson’s Peyton Place. And the reason why is simple – Witness for the Prosecution was a great movie in 1957 and it is an essential today in part because so is Marlene Dietrich.
This post is my entry to the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon Day 22 honoring Marlene Dietrich. The month-long event is hosted by Kristen at Journey in Classic Film and I must tip my hat to her as this is no easy endeavor. Be sure to visit Kristen’s blog on Marlene day and for the rest of the month as entries come in honoring great stars of yesteryear. Visit TCM’s Summer Under the Stars schedule for upcoming tributes.