“The question is, Frau Helm, were you lying then, are you lying now, or are you not in fact a chronic and habitual liar?!” asks Sir Wilfrid Robarts in the murder trial at the heart of the spellbinding “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957).
I love a good mystery, and director Billy Wilder tackled probably the greatest courtroom drama when he adapted Agatha Christie’s short story and play of the same name. What seems pretty straight forward keeps spiraling into a complicated web of deception. The astonishing thing about it is that just when you think things are all figured out, and we’re past the denouement, the bottom drops out from underneath us for another revelation. The film is also a showcase of two bigger than life figures in movie history – Charles Laughton and the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich.
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) – a master barrister in London – has recently had a heart attack and his doting private nurse Miss Plimsoll only wants him to rest comfortably at home. She forbids him to drink, smoke cigars or take on any more criminal cases. “I’m sick of this plot to make me a helpless invalid,” he cries out. Temptation walks in the door. Leonard Vole has been accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French – a rich widow who fell in love with the struggling inventor and salesman of hand mixers. Suspiciously, days before her death, she made Leonard the sole beneficiary of her fortune, and he had not disclosed to her that he was a married man. Sir Wilfrid puts people through a test in which he cross-examines them with his monocle reflecting light on their face. He believes that Leonard is innocent. After the police arrest the accused, Sir Wilfrid receives a visit from the wife, Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich) – a German émigré – who is cold and detached yet is able to provide a suitable alibi for her husband. Later in the trial, she dramatically changes her tune and becomes a witness for the prosecution. Trust me, there are still plenty of twists and turns afoot.
The success of the production is how Wilder is able to make us care about all the different characters before the trial begins. Sir Wilfred’s frailty is established but so are his cunning powers of perception as well as his mental agility. Laughton delivers a commanding physical performance – it’s both theatrical for the sake of the courtroom as well as internalized. Obviously inspired by Winston Churchill’s boisterousness and gravely voice, there are so many details to his characterization it’s hard to take your eyes off him. When he does arrive in the courtroom the camera will always circle back to him. He will be playing with his pills or reaching for his thermos which is supposed to have cocoa, but it’s actually brandy. Sir Wilfred understands showmanship during the proceedings, and when he does show signs that his heart is failing – we wonder if it’s just an act.
On the other side of the spectrum, we get Marlene Dietrich as the enigmatic wife Christine. It’s a tour de force of concealment and allure. Her entrance to Sir Wilfred’s office is a showstopper. He has just commented that he’s expecting histrionics and a fainting spell from Leonard’s wife – better have some smelling salts handy. “I do not think that will be necessary,” she says standing by the doorway in a full shot. “ I never faint because I am not sure that I will fall gracefully, and I never use smelling salts because they puff up the eyes. I am Christine Vole.” In a flashback to Germany during the War, we will see how Leonard met her in a cabaret. She performs with an accordion (yes!) – and an androgenous black sailor’s outfit. During her performance a melee with soldiers will arise, and one side of her pants will be ripped off – leaving her left leg bare. It’s extremely suggestive. The sphinx quality that Dietrich brings to the role keeps us in confusion about her motives and culpability. Wilder and Dietrich had previously worked together in “A Foreign Affair”(1948), and this time around she delivers her best performance.
Elsa Lanchester – the real life wife of Laughton – who some of you may recognize from “The Bride of Frankenstein” – is a standout as Mis Plimsoll – the shrill and nagging caretaker of Sir Wilfred. Her devotion to him will eventually win you over, and her cheering and reactions during the trial are priceless. She was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress,
Wilder – taking a cue from Hitchcock – focuses on the suspense and does some spiffy usage of angles. The first half of the film has its own visual language which is tightly framed. By the time we get to court it will expand. Notice the high angles hovering over the action. There’s quite a lot of electricity in that room.
Leonard Vole: “But this is England, where I thought you never arrest, let alone convict, people for crimes they have not committed.”
Sir Wilfrid: “We try not to make a habit of it.”
Available to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft.
Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz. Adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus
Based on the stage play by Agatha Christie
Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester
Bringing “Witness for the Prosecution” to the Screen
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 January 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 December 16, 1953, ending its run on June 30, 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.”…Although the Broadway production did close in mid-1956, the national release of the film did not occur until February 1958…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. (tcm.com)
About Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich, original name Marie Magdalene Dietrich, also called Marie Magdalene von Losch was born on December 27, 1901 in Schöneberg [now in Berlin], Germany. Dietrich’s father, Ludwig Dietrich, a Royal Prussian police officer, died when she was very young, and her mother remarried a cavalry officer, Edouard von Losch. Marlene, who as a girl adopted the compressed form of her first and middle names, studied at a private school and had learned both English and French by age 12. As a teenager she studied to be a concert violinist, but her initiation into the nightlife of Weimar Berlin—with its cabarets and notorious demimonde—made the life of a classical musician unappealing to her. She pretended to have injured her wrist and was forced to seek other jobs acting and modeling to help make ends meet. In 1921 Dietrich enrolled in Max Reinhardt’s Deutsche Theaterschule, and she eventually joined Reinhardt’s theatre company. In 1923 she attracted the attention of Rudolf Sieber, a casting director at UFA film studios, who began casting her in small film roles. She and Sieber married the following year, and, after the birth of their daughter, Maria, Dietrich returned to work on the stage and in films. Although they did not divorce for decades, the couple separated in 1929. Also in 1929, director Josef von Sternberg first laid eyes on Dietrich and cast her as Lola-Lola, the sultry and world-weary female lead in “Der blaue Engel” (1930; “The Blue Angel”), one of Germany’s first talking films. The film’s success catapulted Dietrich to stardom. Von Sternberg took her to the United States and signed her with Paramount Pictures. With von Sternberg’s help, Dietrich began to develop her legend by cultivating a femme fatale film persona in several von Sternberg vehicles that followed— “Morocco” (1930), “Dishonored” (1931), “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935). She showed a lighter side in “Desire” (1936), directed by Frank Borzage, and “Destry Rides Again” (1939).
During the Third Reich and despite Adolf Hitler’s personal requests, Dietrich refused to work in Germany, and her films were temporarily banned there. Renouncing Nazism (“Hitler is an idiot,” she stated in one wartime interview), Dietrich was branded a traitor in Germany; she was spat upon by Nazi supporters carrying banners that read “Go home Marlene” during her visit to Berlin in 1960. (In 2001, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, the city issued a formal apology for the incident.) Having become a U.S. citizen in 1937, she made more than 500 personal appearances before Allied troops from 1943 to 1946. She later said, “America took me into her bosom when I no longer had a native country worthy of the name, but in my heart I am German—German in my soul.” After the war, Dietrich continued to make successful films, such as “A Foreign Affair” (1948), “The Monte Carlo Story” (1956), “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958), and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). She was also a popular nightclub performer and gave her last stage performance in 1974. After a period of retirement from the screen, she appeared in the film “Just a Gigolo” (1978). The documentary film “Marlene,” a review of her life and career, which included a voice-over interview of the star by Maximilian Schell, was released in 1986. Her autobiography, “Ich bin, Gott sei Dank, Berlinerin” (“I Am, Thank God, a Berliner”; Eng. trans. Marlene), was published in 1987. Eight years after her death, a collection of her film costumes, recordings, written documents, photographs, and other personal items was put on permanent display in the Berlin Film Museum (2000). (www.britannica.com)
About Playwright and Author Agatha Christie
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, Devon, South West England into a comfortably well off middle class family. What made her upbringing unusual, even for its time, was that she was home schooled largely by her father, an American. Her mother, Clara, who was an excellent storyteller, did not want her to learn to read until she was eight but Agatha, bored and as the only child at home (she was a much loved “afterthought” with two older siblings) taught herself to read by the age of five. When she was five, the family spent some time in France having rented out the family home of Ashfield to economise, and it was here with her “governess” Marie, that Agatha learnt her idiomatic but erratically spelt French. At the age of eleven there was a shock. Her father, not well since the advent of financial difficulties, died after a series of heart attacks. Clara was distraught and Agatha became her mother’s closest companion. There were more money worries and talk of selling Ashfield. But Clara and Agatha found a way forward and from the age of 15 Agatha boarded at a succession of pensions and took piano and singing lessons. She could have been a professional pianist but for her excruciating shyness in front of those she did not know. By the age of 18 she was amusing herself with writing short stories – some of which were published in much revised form in the 1930s – with family friend and author Eden Philpotts offering shrewd and constructive advice. “The artist is only the glass through which we see nature, and the clearer and more absolutely pure that glass, so much the more perfect picture we can see through it. Never intrude yourself.” Clara’s health and the need for economies dictated their next move. In 1910 they set off for Cairo and a three month “season” at the Gezirah Palace Hotel. There were evening dresses and parties and young Agatha showed more interest in these than the local archaeological sites. The friends and young couples she met in Cairo invited her to house parties back home on her return. Various marriage proposals followed.
It was in 1912 that Agatha met Archie Christie, a qualified aviator who had applied to join the Royal Flying Corps. Their courtship was a whirlwind affair; both were desperate to marry but with no money. According to her autobiography, it was the “excitement of the stranger” that attracted them both. They married on Christmas Eve 1914 after both had experienced war – Archie in France and Agatha on the Home Front now working with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. They spent their honeymoon night in The Grand Hotel, Torquay and on the 27th December Archie returned to France. They met infrequently during the War Years and it wasn’t until January 1918 when Archie was posted to the War Office in London that Agatha felt her married life truly began. 1919 was a momentous year for Agatha. With the end of the war, Archie had found a job in the City and they had just enough money to rent and furnish a flat in London. Later that year, on the 5th August, Agatha gave birth to their only daughter, Rosalind. It was also the year that a publisher, John Lane of The Bodley Head, and the fourth to have received the manuscript, accepted “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” for publication and contracted Agatha to produce five more books. John Lane insisted on a couple of changes to her manuscript including a reworked final chapter – instead of a courtroom climax, Lane proposed the now familiar denouement in the library. So where did the inspiration for Hercule Poirot come from? During the First World War there were Belgian refugees in most parts of the English countryside, Torquay being no exception. Although he was not based on any particular person, Agatha thought that a Belgian refugee, a former great Belgian policeman, would make an excellent detective for “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” Hercule Poirot was born. Following the war Agatha continued to write – experimenting with different types of thriller and murder mystery stories, creating first Tommy and Tuppence and then Miss Marple in quick succession. In 1922, leaving Rosalind with her nurse and her mother, she and Archie travelled across the then British Empire, promoting “The Empire Exhibition of 1924.” She continued to write: Agatha received the joyous news of good reviews for “The Secret Adversary” while in Cape Town…and Archie’s boss proved the inspiration for Sir Eustace Pedlar in “The Man in the Brown Suit,” also set in Africa. By this time Christie had already decided to change publishers. Fed up with what she saw as the unfair terms offered by “The Bodley Head,” she sought out an agent, Edmund Cork, of Hughes Massie and he found her a new publisher – William Collins and Sons (now HarperCollins). Agatha and Archie remained apart; Agatha living with Rosalind and Carlo in London and following a course of psychiatric treatment in Harley Street.
Needing an income and unable to write new material, her brother-in-law Campbell Christie suggested she combine Poirot short stories composed for The Sketch magazine thus creating “The Big Four.” Finally accepting that her marriage was over, divorce from Archie was granted in 1928. Agatha and Rosalind immediately escaped England to the Canary Islands where Agatha painfully finished “The Mystery of The Blue Train,” the book she had struggled with as she mourned her mother. Late in 1928 Agatha wrote her first Mary Westmacott novel, “Giant’s Bread,” not a detective novel but a work of fiction about a composer forced to work for financial reasons. As a rule Agatha wrote two or three books a year and when with Max often wrote a chapter or two during quiet mornings and helped out on site in the afternoons. The atmosphere of the Middle East was not lost on Agatha, as can be seen in books such as “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Death on the Nile,” “Murder in Mesopotamia,” “Appointment With Death” and “They Came to Baghdad” as well as many short stories written within this period. N or M? was her own patriotic gesture to the war effort and she was disconcerted to see its publication delayed in the US until after the Americans had joined the Allies. Rosalind, having married Hubert Prichard, gave birth to Mathew on 21st September 1943. Max was in Cairo but Agatha was a doting grandmother and often went to help look after the baby. Agatha was focused and prolific during this period. Missing Max and with external entertainment more limited in wartime, she wrote and/or published such classics as “And Then There Were None,” “Evil Under the Sun,” “The Body in the Library,” “Five Little Pigs” and “The Moving Finger.” At the end of 1946, Agatha’s cover as Mary Westmacott was blown by an American reviewer of Absent in the Spring. She was disappointed as she had enjoyed the freedom to write without the pressure of being Agatha Christie. The 1940s and 50s saw much time-consuming work with theatrical productions which also limited the time Agatha could devote to writing. Agatha’s last public appearance was at the opening night of the 1974 film version of Murder on the Orient Express starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Her verdict: a good adaptation with the minor point that Poirot’s moustaches weren’t luxurious enough. After a hugely successful career and a very happy life Agatha died peacefully on 12 January 1976. She is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey, near Wallingford. (agathachristie.com)
About Director and Co-Writer Billy Wilder
He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Max Wilder, who died in 1926, ran a chain of railway cafes. His mother Eugenia had spent several years in the United States in her youth. She nicknamed her younger son “Billy” because of her fascination with legendary American hero, Buffalo Bill. Wilder briefly studied law in Vienna before obtaining a newspaper job writing interviews, crime and sports stories, and hard-hitting personal profiles. In 1926, Wilder’s interests led him to a publicity job with the American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman in Berlin. He remained in Berlin writing for the city’s largest tabloid. In 1929 Wilder had his first break working on the German film “Menschen Am Sontag” (“People on Sunday”). He remained in Germany co-writing and directing films until the rise of the Nazis forced him to move to France, and ultimately to the United States. Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934 with virtually no money and little knowledge of English. He worked on and off until 1938, when he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Charles Brackett. Their partnership, which lasted twelve years, produced a succession of box office hits including “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” and “Sunset Boulevard.” “Double Indemnity,” co-written with Raymond Chandler was a tense and thrilling film noir, while “Sunset Boulevard” investigated the bizarre and tragic life of a once famous silent movie star. Both proved Wilder’s ability to create successful and artistic cinema.
The 1950s saw Wilder produce several films alone including “Stalag 17” (1953) and “The Seven Year Itch,” before teaming up with the writer/producer I.A.L. Diamond in 1957. The two would collaborate for over twenty years, producing such major hits as “Witness for the Prosecution” (1954), “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment.” Wilder’s career was one of the most various and successful in the business. While he often wrote and directed penetrating films about the shallowness of modern life, he was capable of creating equally successful comedies. Often running into criticism for his presentation of taboo topics such as alcoholism and prostitution, the high quality of the films redeemed him in the eyes of both the public and the industry. Of the many great stars he directed, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon are only a few. The late 1960s and 1970s, however, were not as kind to Wilder. His brand of cynicism, irony and satire were out of step with this generation’s view of peace, love, revolution and individual experimentation. Nonetheless, in 1964 the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a sixteen-film, thirty-five-year, retrospective of Wilder’s work. Similar showings were later held in Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles. He has received many awards and tributes including the National Medal of Honor (awarded by President Clinton). Today, Wilder’s films remain an important part of American culture, and he is viewed as one of Hollywood’s greatest successes. (pbs.org)