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Witness for the Prosecution
Director: Billy Wilder (Dir)
Release Date:   Feb 1958
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles opening: 17 Dec 1957; New York opening: 6 Feb 1958
Production Date:   began 10 Jun--mid-Aug 1957 at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios
Duration (in mins):   114-115
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Cast:   Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole)  
    Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole)  
    Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid [Robarts])  
    Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll)  
    John Williams (Brogan-Moore)  
    Henry Daniell (Mayhew)  
    Ian Wolfe (Carter)  
    Torin Thatcher (Mr. Myers)  
    Norma Varden (Mrs. [Emily Jane] French)  
    Una O'Connor (Janet [McKenzie])  
    Francis Compton (Judge)  
    Philip Tonge (Inspector Hearne)  
    Ruta Lee (Diana [Girl in the spectators' gallery])  
    Molly Roden (Miss McHugh)  
    Ottola Nesmith (Miss Johnson)  
    Marjorie Eaton (Miss O'Brien)  
    J. Pat O'Malley (Bermuda shorts salesman)  
    Jack Raine (Sir Wilfrid's physician)  
    Ben Wright (Bailiff)  
    Bess Flowers (Courtoom spectator)  
    Jeffrey Sayre (Courtroom clerk)  

Summary: Following a lengthy hospital stay for a near-fatal heart attack, famed London barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts returns to his combined office and lodgings near The Old Bailey, accompanied by his overbearing nurse, Miss Plimsoll. Sir Wilfrid chafes at her constant vigilance and becomes despondent at the thought that he may no longer be able to try criminal cases. That afternoon, Mayhew, a friend and solicitor, arrives unannounced to discuss an urgent case. Despite a verbal scolding from Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid speaks with Mayhew and his client, Leonard Vole. Mayhew fears that Leonard will soon be charged with the stabbing murder of Mrs. Emily Jane French, a wealthy widow who was a friend of Leonard, and whom he is known to have visited the day she was killed. Upon questioning, the personable Leonard relates that he was in the army during World War II and stationed in Germany, where he met Christine, a German actress whom he married and brought home to England. Admitting that he has been unemployed for months, Leonard says that he is an inventor who has been trying to get financing for his revolutionary new eggbeater. He then describes two accidental meetings with Mrs. French, after which they became friends. Charmed by Leonard's straightforward manner and sheepish confession to having hoped that Mrs. French would finance his invention, Sir Wilfrid nonetheless turns the case down on doctor's orders. He then suggests fellow barrister Brogan-Moore, whom he has his faithful assistant Carter summon. Sir Wilfrid pressures Leonard on details of the night of the murder and his relationship with Mrs. French. Though increasingly emotional, Leonard does not change his story, impressing Sir Wilfrid with his innocence. When Brogan-Moore arrives, Sir Wilfrid tells him that the case should be easy, as there was absolutely no motive for Leonard to kill Mrs. French, who might have given him money if she had lived. Brogan-Moore then reveals that in Mrs. French’s will, which has just been opened, she left Leonard £80,000. Leonard reacts happily to news of the legacy until suddenly realizing its implication. Moments later, the police arrest him. After Leonard is taken away, Brogan-Moore, who is not convinced of his innocence, relates that Christine is his only alibi. As Sir Wilfrid is about to go take a rest, Christine appears at the office, surprising him with her sophistication and cool detachment. Although she confirms Leonard’s alibi, she implies that he asked her to lie and has not been truthful about his relationship with Mrs. French. Sir Wilfrid is shocked when she matter-of-factly states that Leonard ”has a way with women,” then announces that she and Leonard are not legally married because she never divorced her German husband. After she promises to be very convincing on the witness stand, even if lying, Brogan-Moore concludes that the case is hopeless. Sir Wilfrid, however, believing in Leonard’s innocence, takes the case. Just before the trial, Sir Wilfrid visits Leonard in jail and reads a statement from Mrs. French’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, in which she swore that Leonard had helped Mrs. French draft a new will. In answer to a question the police had about a cut on his finger, Leonard says that he got the cut while slicing a loaf of bread, something Christine can confirm. Leonard asks why Christine has not come to visit him, then breaks down, saying that he cannot get through the trial without her. On the day of the trial, Sir Wilfrid’s fragile health causes him to miss the opening moments, but he soon arrives with a flask of brandy camouflaged for Miss Plimsoll’s benefit as cocoa. Sir Wilfrid objects strenuously to every point made by Crown Prosecutor Mr. Myers, while Miss Plimsoll observes from the spectators’ gallery, discussing the case with a young woman. Following damning testimony by the first few witnesses, Janet remains steadfast about her previous statements about the night of the murder and the day that she overheard Leonard and Mrs. French discussing the will. However, Sir Wilfrid successfully establishes that Janet had been Mrs. French’s beneficiary in the previous will and has a hearing problem that would make it difficult for her to discern voices behind a closed door. On the third day of the trial, Christine is called to testify. Upon learning that their marriage was never valid and hearing Christine testify that he came home on the night of the murder and said “I’ve killed her,” Leonard breaks down in anguish as women in the courtroom express their disdain for Christine. During an emotional cross-examination, Sir Wilfrid establishes the pattern of lies Christine has told, accusing her of being a habitual liar, but she will not be shaken from her testimony. When the crown rests its case, Sir Wilfrid calls his only witness, Leonard, who steadfastly affirms that he is not guilty. Under cross-examination, Myers brings up new evidence that Leonard and an unidentified young woman had visited a travel agent on the day of Mrs. French’s murder and were interested in deluxe cruises. Leonard says that he hardly knew the girl and was merely asking for brochures for fun, then becomes hysterical over the horrible nightmare in which he has found himself. That evening, Sir Wilfrid ponders Christine’s testimony, telling Mayhew that he cannot understand why she lied. Just then, he receives a phone call from an anonymous Cockney woman who says she has “the goods” on Christine and demands that Sir Wilfrid meet her at Euston Station. Sir Wilfrid immediately goes to meet the woman, who snarls her hatred of Christine, and after Sir Wilfrid gives her £40, hands over a packet of “juicy” letters from Christine to a man named Max, who she says had been her lover before falling in love with Christine. She refuses to give her name, or Max’s last name, then disappears after showing Sir Wilfrid a scar on her face, which she said came from Max. The next day in court, as Myers begins his closing statement, Sir Wilfrid interrupts to recall Christine. Over Myers’ objections, the judge allows Christine to retake the stand. Now Sir Wilfrid confronts her with the content of the letters which stated, in her own hand, that she was planning to place the blame for Mrs. French’s murder on Leonard so that she could be free to be with Max. Christine screams out “Lies, all lies,” but Sir Wilfrid tricks her into confirming that the letters were hers. The jury quickly returns a not guilty verdict, but Sir Wilfrid begins to think that everything was “too neat.” While Leonard is retrieving his things from the bailiff, Christine comes back into the near empty courtroom, seeking refuge from the crowd of angry spectators. When Sir Wilfrid warns that she will go to jail for perjury, she demurs, saying that the testimony she gave was the truth, not because she knew that Leonard was innocent, but because she knew he was guilty. She then reveals that she did what she had to because she loves Leonard and the jury never would have believed supportive testimony from a loving wife. She then assumes the Cockney woman’s accent and reveals that Max and the letters were figments of her imagination. Now Leonard re-enters the courtroom and blithely says that he knew Christine was planning something but not what. As he is promising to pay for Christine’s defense, Miss Plimsoll and Diana, the young woman from the spectator’s gallery, enter the courtroom. When Diana throws herself into Leonard’s arms and announces that she is his girl, Christine is stunned. Leonard then coolly tells Christine that her saving his life pays him back for taking her out of Germany. Christine then grabs the murder knife still lying on the table and plunges it into Leonard. After Miss Plimsoll examines the body and announces “she killed him,” Sir Wilfrid responds, “she executed him.” As Sir Wilfrid ponders the case, Miss Plimsoll tells Carter to cancel his planned Bermudan vacation. After she hands Sir Wilfrid his court wig and reminding him not to forget his flask of brandy, he puts his arm around her as they leave the courtroom together. 

Production Company: Edward Small Productions, Inc.  
  Theme Pictures, Inc.  
Production Text: An Arthur Hornblow production
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Billy Wilder (Dir)
  Emmett Emerson (Asst dir)
  Bert Steiner (Dial dir)
  Frank Losee (2d asst dir)
Producer: Edward Small (Pres)
  Arthur Hornblow (Prod)
Writer: Billy Wilder (Scr)
  Harry Kurnitz (Scr)
  Larry Marcus (Adpt)
Photography: Russell Harlan (Dir of photog)
  Madison Lacey (Stills)
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner (Art dir)
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Howard Bristol (Set dec)
  Stanley Detlie (Prop master)
Costumes: Edith Head (Miss Dietrich's cost)
  Joseph King (Cost)
  Adele Parmenter (Cost)
Music: Matty Malneck (Mus score)
  Leonid Raab (Mus arr)
  Ernest Gold (Mus cond)
Sound: Fred Lau (Sd)
Special Effects: Lee Zavitz (Spec eff)
Make Up: Ray Sebastian (Makeup)
  Harry Ray (Makeup)
  Gustaf Norin (Makeup)
  Helene Parrish (Hairdresser)
  Nellie Manley (Hairdresser)
Production Misc: Doane Harrison (Prod assoc)
  John Franco (Scr supv)
  Ben Hersh (Prod supv)
  Basil Bleck (Tech adv)
  William Mayberry (Casting)
  Jack Cooper (Pub dir)
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: "I May Never Go Home Anymore," music by Ralph Arthur Roberts, lyrics by Jack Brooks.
Composer: Jack Brooks
  Ralph Arthur Roberts
Source Text: Based on the play Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie (London, 28 Oct 1953).
Authors: Agatha Christie

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Theme Pictures, Inc. 17/12/1957 dd/mm/yyyy LP10200

PCA NO: 18704
Physical Properties: Sd: Westrex

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Legal
Subjects (Major): Impersonation and imposture
  Vocational obsession
Subjects (Minor): Aged women
  Euston Station (London, England)
  Great Britain. Army
  Heart disease
  London (England)
  The Old Bailey (London, England)
  Postwar life

Note: As the end credits roll, an offscreen voice addresses the audience with the following statement: "The management of this theater suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution ." According to the film's pressbook, at previews, audience members received, and were asked to sign, cards that read, "I solemnly swear I will not reveal the ending of Witness for the Prosecution ." The pressbook, reviews and various articles about the production stated that the principal cast members themselves did not even know the ending of the film until the last day of shooting, when the final ten pages of the script were presented to them. Various news items reported that extras appearing as courtroom spectators were changed when the ending was shot to ensure greater secrecy.
       Agatha Christie's highly successful play Witness for the Prosecution was based on her short story "Traitor's Hands." After the story was published in the British magazine Flynn's (31 Jan 1925), it was retitled "The Witness for the Prosecution" and reprinted several times throughout the 1930s and 1940s in various British and American publications. Less than two months after the play's London premiere, it opened on Broadway on 16 Dec 1953, ending its run on 30 Jun 1956. Early printed editions of the playbook left off the final "twist" at the end, at Christie's request.
       The film followed the basic story of Christie's play, but director and co-screenwriter Billy Wilder opened up the story by including numerous scenes that did not take place solely in the courtroom, as the play had, and changed the emphasis from "Leonard Vole" to "Sir Wilfrid Robarts." The character of "Miss Plimsoll" was added to the film, and the name of Leonard Vole's wife "Romaine" was changed to “Christine.” A major difference between Christie's original story, her play and the film is that the story ended when Romaine reveals that she devised her plan because she knew Leonard was guilty, whereas the play and film continue on, with the added twist of Romaine/Christine stabbing Leonard to death.
       According to a 26 Jan 1955 HR news item, Christie's agent, Harold Ober, set an asking price of $450,000 for the film rights to her play, with bids to be submitted by 1 Feb 1955. A HR news item on 23 Jun 1955 stated that Louis B. Mayer was “understood" to have acquired the rights to the play for $300,000 and planned to produce a film adaptation in England under Clarence Brown's direction. However, a 17 Aug 1955 HR news item stated that Gilbert Miller, who had co-produced the Broadway production of the play with Peter Saunders, had acquired the screen rights for $325,000. A 30 Jan 1955 DV news item stated that Edward Small had secured the film rights and, as stated in the film's pressbook, the price paid for the rights was "just a little bit under half a million dollars." According to a 14 Jul 1957 LAT news item, Small actually bought the rights from Gilbert for $430,000. The Jan 1955 news item added that the potential release date for any film version would be 1958, unless the play closed earlier. Although the Broadway production did close in mid-1956, the national release of the film did not occur until Feb 1958.
       A HR news item on 20 Aug 1957 states that the song "I May Never Go Home Anymore," which had words by Jack Brooks and arrangements by Matty Malneck, was based on a German tune; however, the film credits the music to Ralph Arthur Roberts, and no additional information about a German source for the melody has been located. According to a HR news item, actor Pat Aherne was added to the cast but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
       Although early news items stated that Small and producer Arthur Hornblow intended to shoot the film in London, and some backgrounds were shot there, all of the interiors were shot at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. As noted in the pressbook, the courtroom setting, which cost $75,000 to build, was a recreation of an actual courtroom in London's Central Criminal Courts, The Old Bailey. As noted in some modern sources, the flashback sequence set in a post-World War II German tavern, which was not in the original play, is very reminiscent of a sequence in Wilder's 1948 film A Foreign Affair , which also starred Marlene Dietrich (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ). According to the 14 Jul 1957 LAT article, Charles Laughton modeled his characterization of “Sir Wilfrid Robarts,” including the use of a monocle to intimidate Leonard, on Florance Guedella, an Englishman who was both Laughton's and Dietrich's lawyer and who was famous for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.
       For the Euston Station sequence, in which Christine disguises herself as a Cockney woman, Dietrich wore heavy makeup to disguise her face, especially her well-known high cheekbones. An item in HR 's "Rambling Reporter" column on 18 Sep 1957 stated "They called in a British belle to dub Marlene Dietrich's Cockney-type talk" for the sequence. However, on 19 Sep 1957, the column printed a retraction, apologizing for the "storm in a Wagnerian teacup," stating that Hornblow and many of Dietrich's friends had telephoned to state that, although Dietrich was coached by a British woman, she herself provided the Cockney voice in the film. Many modern sources have commented on the controversy. Although in the Euston Station sequence the Cockney woman's voice appears to be dubbed, when Dietrich repeats some of the lines later in the film, it is more apparent that Dietrich herself provided the distinctive voice for both scenes.
       Witness for the Prosecution received excellent reviews, with many critics comparing it favorably with the theatrical productions. The LAEx reviewer called the picture "that once in a blue-moon movie that has everything," and the SatRev critic stated "it makes an even better movie--a tense, mystifying melodrama full of fascinating oddball characters and intriguingly inexplicable situations." The film was a box office success and received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Direction, Film Editing, Sound Recording, Best Supporting Actress, Elsa Lanchester and Best Actor, Charles Laughton.
       Witness for the Prosecution was the last film completed by Tyrone Power. Power died in 1958 while on the set of the film Solomon and Sheba (see above). Witness for the Prosecution was also the last film in which married actors Laughton and Lanchester appeared together and the final film appearance of longtime character actress Una O'Connor (1880--1959) who recreated the role of "Janet" from the Broadway production of the play. Modern sources include Franklyn Farnum, Colin Kenny, William H. O'Brien and Norbert Schiller in the cast.
       There have been many revivals of Christie's play on the stage, and several live television productions of the story, both in Britain and the United States. A 1982 American TV movie directed by Alan Gibson and starring Beau Bridges, Dianna Rigg, Ralph Richardson and Deborah Kerr was adapted from the Billy Wilder film. In Sep 2003, television producer David E. Kelley announced that he was writing a script for a new feature film version of the play, which would be the first theatrical film adaptation of a Christie work since an American production of Ten Little Indians released in 1989.

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   30 Nov 1957.   
Daily Variety   30 Jan 1955.   
Daily Variety   27 Nov 1957   p. 3.
Film Daily   27 Nov 1957   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Jan 1955   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   23 Jun 1955.   
Hollywood Reporter   17 Aug 1955.   
Hollywood Reporter   13 May 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   16 May 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   6 Jun 1957   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Jun 1957   p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter   26 Jun 1957   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Jul 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Jul 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Jul 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Aug 1957   p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Aug 1957   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Aug 1957   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Sep 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Sep 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Nov 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   26 Nov 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   27 Nov 1957   p. 3.
Los Angeles Examiner   18 Dec 1957.   
Los Angeles Times   14 Jul 1957   Section V, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   15 Dec 1957.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   30 Nov 1957   p. 625.
New York Times   7 Feb 1958   p. 16.
Newsweek   20 Jan 1958.   
Saturday Review   15 Feb 1958.   
Time   27 Jan 1958   p. 95.
Variety   4 Dec 1957   p. 6.

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