Witness for the Prosecution

Infobox Film
name = Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

image_size= 150px
caption = original movie poster
director = Billy Wilder
producer = Arthur Hornblow Jr.
writer = Agatha Christie (play) Larry Marcus Billy Wilder Harry Kurnitz
starring = Tyrone Power Marlene Dietrich Charles Laughton Elsa Lanchester
music = Matty Malneck Ralph Arthur Robert
cinematography = Russell Harlan
editing = Daniel Mandell
distributor = United Artists
released = February 6, 1958
runtime = 116 min.
language = English
budget = $3,000,000 (estimated)
imdb_id = 0051201|

"Witness for the Prosecution" is a 1957 crime film based on a short story (and later play) by Agatha Christie dealing with the trial of a man accused of murder. This first film version of the story stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester. The movie was adapted by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and the film's Austrian-born director Billy Wilder.

The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charles Laughton), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Elsa Lanchester), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, and Best Sound.

Plot summary

Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton), a master barrister in ill health, takes Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) on as a client, over the protestations of his private (and annoying) nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), that the doctor had told him to stay away from criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a rich, older woman who had become enamored of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence all points to Vole as the killer.

When Sir Wilfred speaks with Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when she is unexpectedly called as a witness for the prosecution. While a wife cannot testify against her husband, it is shown that Christine was in fact still married to another man when she wed Leonard. In the witness box ("on the stand" in American English), she testifies that Leonard admitted to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and that her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth.

During the trial (in the Old Bailey, carefully recreated by Alexandre Trauner), Sir Wilfred is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max. This correspondence gives her such a strong motive to lie that the jury finds Leonard not guilty.

However, Sir Wilfred is troubled, not elated, by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was too tidy, too neat. And so it proves. By chance, he and Christine are left alone in the courtroom. She takes the opportunity to take credit for the whole thing. When she heard him say at the beginning that a wife's testimony would not be convincing, she decided to set it up so that hers would be for the prosecution and then be discredited. An ex-actress, she had played the part of the mystery woman so well that Sir Wilfred did not recognize her when he negotiated for the letters. She knew that Leonard was guilty; her testimony was actually the truth. Her letters are a fraud — Max never existed. When asked why she did it, she confesses that she loves Leonard.

Leonard appears and, now protected by double jeopardy, nonchalantly confirms what Christine had said. A young woman (Ruta Lee) then rushes into his arms. When he admits that they are going away together, Christine kills him with a knife in a fit of fury. When people rush in to see what the commotion is, Sir Wilfred remarks that Christine did not murder Leonard, but that she "executed him". Miss Plimsoll then cancels Sir Wilfred's holiday, realizing that he can't resist taking charge of Christine's defense.


*Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole. This was his final finished movie. He died during the filming of "Solomon and Sheba" (1959).
*Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm
*Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Robarts
*Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll. In real life, she was Laughton's wife.
*Norma Varden as Mrs. French
*Henry Daniell as Mayhew, Vole's solicitor
*John Williams as Brogan-Moore, another barrister
*Ian Wolfe as Carter, Sir Wilfred's butler
*Una O'Connor as Janet, Mrs. French's housekeeper and a prosecution witness. She was the only member of the original Broadway play's cast to reprise her role on film.
*Ruta Lee as Diana, Vole's girlfriend
*Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers, the prosecuting barriste

Other adaptations

The first performance of "Witness for the Prosecution" was in the form of a live telecast which aired on CBS's Lux Video Theatre on September 17, 1953, starring Edward G. Robinson, Andrea King and Tom Drake [http://www.andreaking.com/WitnessForTheProsecutionPage.htm] . The play opened in London on October 28, 1953 and on Broadway on December 16, 1954.

In 1982, "Witness for the Prosecution" was remade for television, starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, and Diana Rigg. It was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and John Gay from the original screenplay and directed by Alan Gibson.

Another adaptation also exists but not much is known about it other than it was made in 1949 and had a run time of 25 minutesFact|date=February 2007. It appears to have been a television play for the UK.


In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers. A rowdy customer conveniently rips them down one side, revealing one of Dietrich's renowned legs and starting a brawl. According to IMDb, the scene required 145 extras, 38 stunt men and $90,000.


In the book "Reel Justice", the authors noted that a lawyer of Sir Wilfred's experience should have been able to disallow Christine Vole's testimony for the prosecution on the grounds she was a "putative spouse" of Leonard Vole. A putative spouse is a person to whom someone (in this case, Leonard Vole) sincerely believes he or she is legally married. For the purposes of the trial under that situation, Christine would, in effect, still be considered Leonard's wife and spousal privilege would apply.

Additionally, it could be argued that Christine's testimony that Leonard had said "I have killed her" the night of the murder should have been objected to because it is inadmissible hearsay. However, most jurisdictions recognize an exception to the hearsay rule for "admissions" by the defendant.

External links


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Look at other dictionaries:

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