A dear friend of mine has referred to 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution as an Alfred Hitchcock movie on more than one occasion. That’s understandable–it looks, smells, and feels like a Hitch pic. The fact that it was directed by Billy Wilder is a testament to Mr. Wilder’s versatility as a filmmaker. The Austrian-born writer-director was adept at making screwball comedies (One, Two, Three), film noir (Double Indemnity), satire (The Apartment), sophisticated comedy (Sabrina), drama (The Lost Weekend), and romance (Avanti!). In Witness for the Prosecution, he expertly blends courtroom drama and humor–in the best Hitchcockian tradition.
Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a grumpy but shrewd London barrister who was recently released from the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Against the advice of his physicians, Sir Wilfred takes on a murder case (his specialty). His client is an affable chap named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) accused of killing an elderly lady. Vole’s alleged motive is that the murder victim left him a substantial amount of money in her will. His alibi rests on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who leaves a decidedly cold impression with Sir Wilfred.
Based on a short story and stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is justly famous for its twist ending–which is flawlessly executed. It was probably one of the first films that marketed its climatic twist. Indeed, a voiceover prior to the closing credits asked moviegoers not to reveal the ending to their friends. However, like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Witness is a strong film that’s enhanced by its famous plot device. It certainly doesn’t rely on a clever trick to be entertaining.
The film’s success can be attributed to those old basics of good acting and good script writing. Laughton, who had a tendency to ham up some of his later roles, finds the perfect blend of seriousness and humor. He is matched by Dietrich and his wife Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, a nurse charged with the unenviable task of caring for Sir Wilfred. Lanchester and Laughton make a delightful comic team, one savvy enough to generate laughs out of the contents of a thermos. Dietrich has a more difficult role, especially since her character is a conundrum for much of the film. However, when it comes to her big scenes, she exceeds all expectations.
There was a time when I considered Tyrone Power to be the film’s weak link. I still don’t believe his performance ranks with the ones delivered by his co-stars. However, I have gradually come to the realization that Power is portraying a character playing a character. That’s got to be a challenge, so, on that level, he does a solid job as the smarmy Vole.
In adapting Christie’s play, Wilder and co-writers Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz made two significant additions. First, they added scenes showing how Leonard met Christine and later befriended the murder victim. The latter doesn’t add much to the plot, but the scenes of Christine soften her character and help justify actions taken later in the film. Dietrich’s nightclub number was reportedly based on a scene cut from Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), which starred Dietrich, Jean Arthur, and John Lund. The cabaret set cost over $75,000 to build.
Still, Wilder’s most significant contribution to the script was the creation of the delightful Nurse Plimsoll. Many of the film’s best lines are delivered by her or directed at her by the gruff barrister (Miss Plimsoll: “Sir Wilfred, we mustn’t forget that we’ve had a teeny weeny heart attack.”). Plus, Wilder gets a lot of mileage out of Sir Wilfred’s amusing attempts to hide his vices (e.g., cigars and brandy) from Miss Plimsoll’s watchful eyes.
Witness for the Prosecution earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Wilder, Best Actor for Laughton, and Best Supporting Actress for Lanchester. It was remade for television in 1982 with another impressive cast: Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfred, Deborah Kerr as Miss Plimsoll, and Diana Rigg as Christine. I haven’t seen that version since its original broadcast, but recall it being very well done.