Filmsite Movie Review
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
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Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is co-writer and director Billy Wilder's brilliant film, with crisp dialogue, a complicated and intriguing plot, unique characters and excellent acting performances. The Hitchcock-like suspenser was a convoluted, twisting courtroom drama-mystery adapted by Lawrence Marcus from Agatha Christie's classic four-character short story "Traitor's Hands," first printed in 1925 in the British magazine Flynn's, and then published in the 1930s and 1940s in both the UK and US as "The Witness for the Prosecution." It then became a celebrated 1953 stage play and murder mystery (in London and on Broadway).

With a limited number of sets, the film told about an aging, distinguished, near-retirement age London barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), with his nagging and combative housekeeper/nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife) tending to his near-failing health for a weak heart - the source of most of the film's comic relief. The intelligently clever and incorrigible attorney was asked by solicitor Mr. Mayhew (Henry Daniell) to take on a perplexing case, the defense of the prime suspect - an unemployed, American expatriate inventor named Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power in his final film role). He was charged with the murder of wealthy widow Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), in order to inherit her property (80,000 pounds) from her recently-changed will.

In the courtroom setting - a recreation of an actual courtroom in London's Central Criminal Courts, known as The Old Bailey, the testimony -- and true identity -- of the mysterious, beautiful German-born 'wife' of the accused, Christine "Helm" Vole (Marlene Dietrich), held the key to solving the case involving marital infidelities and deceit. She was Vole's only alibi - but could not as the defendant's wife be considered a credible witness. The twisting plot was masterful. As a surprise 'witness for the prosecution,' Christine Helm/Vole WAS called to testify against him and cold-heartedly betray her husband. She lied during her testimony on the stand - a deliberate ploy to discredit herself and to find her guilty husband Leonard not-guilty. When a mysterious Cockney woman called Sir Wilfrid saying she had information to help his client, the film set up the surprise ending.

The film's many taglines included:

  • The Most Electrifying Entertainment of Our Time!
  • It's climaxed by the 10 breath-stopping minutes you ever lived! Don't reveal the ending - please!
  • a half century of motion picture suspense!

The studio's publicity campaign requested that viewers not reveal the stunning melodramatic plot twist-ending in this film, although it was one of Agatha Christie's most famous, well-known short stories/plays. This plot-twist warning was one of the first of its kind, later repeated by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960). A voice-over narrator at the end of the film stated:

"The management of this theatre 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."

The film received six Academy Award nominations (with no wins): including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Charles Laughton), Best Supporting Actress (Elsa Lanchester), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Editing. Another classic courtroom drama was also nominated as Best Picture in the same year: 12 Angry Men (1957). Unbelievably, both films did not win any Oscar awards. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (with seven Oscars) and Sayonara (1957) (with four Oscars) went away with many of the major awards.

A remade, 1982 TV movie based on the original Wilder screenplay starred the venerable Ralph Richardson in the Laughton role, with Deborah Kerr as his nurse, Beau Bridges as the accused Leonard Vole, and Diana Rigg as his wife Christine.

Plot Synopsis

Playful Banter Between Crusty Old Sir Wilfrid Robarts, His Assistant Carter, and His Nurse Miss Plimsoll:

The setting was Britain in 1952, where an aging, distinguished, crafty, cynical, near-retirement age London barrister/defense attorney Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) was returning to his home in the back of a chauffeured car after two months of hospitalization for a heart attack, due in part to his two habitual vices: smoking cigars and drinking brandy. He was to be regularly cared for by his overbearing housekeeper/nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife) who tended to his near-failing health for a weak heart, and H. A. Carter (Ian Wolfe), Sir Wilfrid's faithful chief clerk and office manager for many decades.

There was a lot of playful banter with his insistent, scolding and ever-present vigilant nurse during the irrepressible and obstinate Robarts' extended convalescence:

"Roll up your mouth. You talk too much. If I'd known how much you talked, I'd have never come out of my coma!"

According to Miss Plimsoll, he had been "expelled for conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient." He labeled Miss Plimsoll, who regulated his medications, schedule of rest and nap-times, and bad habits, as a "blabbermouth."

Once again in his home study-office, Wilfrid told Carter that he had missed his "ugly, old and musty room." Carter quipped back: "Missed you too, you musty old buzzard." Carter said he had lit a candle when Wilfrid was taken away in an ambulance two months earlier. It wasn't for Wilfrid but for himself. He was concerned that after 37 years, he might soon find himself without an employer. Wilfrid claimed he had lost 30 pounds during his stay in the "wretched" hospital before being discharged, and wondered whether his official wig would still fit on his head. He joked that the mothballs used for storing his wig might better be used to preserve him in a coffin: "Might as well get a bigger box, more mothballs, put me away too."

Wilfrid was reminded by Carter that his doctors recommended that he not accept any more criminal cases, but only work on "nice smooth matters with excellent fees." Sir Wilfrid vehemently complained:

"Doctors! They've deprived me of everything - alcohol, tobacco, female companionship. If only they'd let me do my work - something worthwhile!"

When Miss Plimsoll insisted on his 2:30 pm nap-time, the intelligently-clever, obstinate and incorrigible attorney Sir Wilfrid objected by proposing "justifiable homicide" - her murder:

"Are you aware Miss Plimsoll, that while on my sickbed, I seriously considered strangling you with one of your own rubber tubes. I would then have admitted the crime, retained myself for the defence. (He donned his wig and pretended he was addressing the court) 'My Lord, members of the jury, I hereby enter a plea of justifiable homicide. For four months this alleged angel of mercy has pored, probed, punctured, pillaged and plundered my helpless body while tormenting my mind with a steady drip of baby talk.'"

As she struggled with him to be taken upstairs, he proposed striking her with his cane - she revealed that she knew his forbidden, 'smuggled' cigars (one of the original causes of Sir Wilfrid's heart attack) were hidden there - and she confiscated them. He again expressed his disapproval: "You could be jailed for this. You had no search warrant for my cane." During his recent hospital stay, he had acquired the nickname "Wilfrid the Fox" for hiding cigars and brandy all over the place. When the nurse took off with his cigars, he begged and pleaded: "Can't I have just one?...A few puffs after meals? Please." He jokingly proposed murdering her "some dark night":

"When her back is turned, I'll snatch her thermometer and plunge it through her shoulder blades. So help me, I will."

He also complained about the newly-installed stair-lift to take him upstairs, and called it a conspiracy against him: "I'm getting sick of this plot to make me a helpless invalid," until he took a ride on the lift and actually enjoyed the "fun" experience and called it "remarkable."

An Intriguing, Proposed Murder Defense Case:

A solicitor arrived named Mr. Mayhew (Henry Daniell) who brought news of a "serious criminal matter," but Carter stressed that the experienced defence attorney was still a convalescent: "He can't possibly accept anything of an overstimulating nature." Sir Wilfrid returned back down the stairs on the lift and added how he had been put "on a diet of bland civil suits." He also informed Mayhew: "You'd better get yourself a younger man with younger arteries."

Mr. Mayhew was accompanied by defendant Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power in his final film role before his death) who was noted to be "a ghastly mess." Sir Wilfrid returned upstairs and curtly rejected the offer of the case. But then he reversed the lift when he noticed two tempting cigars in Mayhew's vest pocket. He dragged Mayhew into his office-study for a private discussion to offer him advice. Outside the office, Vole calmly explained to Miss Plimsoll and Carter how Mayhew was concerned that he might soon be arrested for murder.

Sir Wilfrid was immediately intrigued by the perplexing, challenging murder case against Vole, a seemingly-guileless, affable prime suspect who was now urgently requiring the services of a criminal defense attorney. The details of the case were quickly summarized by Mayhew for Sir Wilfrid. The defendant Vole was accused of murdering a 56 year-old lonely, wealthy, middle-aged, childless widowed acquaintance, Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), who lived with her housekeeper at Hampstead. Vole had been with her earlier in the evening just before she was found dead:

"When the housekeeper returned from her day off, she found her mistress dead, struck on the back of the head and killed....Vole seems a harmless chap, caught in a web of circumstantial evidence...There are no previous convictions. Naturally, he's a man of good character with an excellent war record. You'd like him a lot....The defence may tum on establishing an alibi for the night of the murder."

While being informed about the defendant's need for an alibi on the night of the murder, Sir Wilfrid begged for one of Mayhew's cigars, and then searched for a set of confiscated matches. With a degree of "cunning," Sir Wilfrid invited Vole into the office to light up his cigar. Vole casually asserted his innocence: "I haven't murdered anybody. It's absurd. Christine, that's my wife, she thought I may be implicated and that I needed a lawyer. That's why I went to see Mr. Mayhew." Indeed, Vole needed a barrister-attorney, such as Sir Wilfrid, to plead his case in court. Vole also admitted how he had cooperatively made a statement to the police (that might be used against him). Mayhew worried that due to Vole's status as the principal suspect in the case, he would imminently be arrested. Vole again vowed that he was innocent, but still might be wrongly convicted of the murder:

"But I've done nothing! Why should I be arrested?...It's just when you tell me that all these things are closing in on me, it's like a nightmare."

Sir Wilfrid's first reaction was to refuse to defend Vole's innocence and take his case: "I'm not taking your case. I can't. I'm forbidden. My doctors would never allow it. I'm truly sorry, young man." He suggested a fellow barrister Mr. Brogan-Moore, who was then summoned to the house by Carter.

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