skip navigation
Witness for the Prosecution

Witness for the Prosecution(1957)

  • Thursday, February 19 @ 12:30 PM (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
Up
Down
Contribute

FOR Witness for the Prosecution (1957) YOU CAN

UPLOAD AN IMAGE SUBMIT A VIDEO OR MOVIE CLIP ADD ADDITIONAL INFORMATION WRITE YOUR OWN REVIEW

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

Shop tcm.com

Witness for the... - NOT AVAILABLE

Crying Boy

VOTE FOR THIS TITLE:
Our records indicate this title is not available on Home Video. Vote below for it to be released on DVD.

  1. Total votes: vote now!
  2. Rank: (why vote?)

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

SYNOPSIS

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is an aging barrister recovering from a heart attack. Against the advice of doctors and his nurse, played by Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester, Sir Wilfrid decides to defend Leonard Vole. Vole (Tyrone Power) is on trial for the murder of a wealthy widow. His wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), is his only alibi, but Sir Wilfrid doubts whether she is telling the truth. Additionally, Christine reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she is not Leonard Vole's wife. She was already married when they met during the war in Germany. Ultimately Christine is called as a witness for the prosecution testifying Leonard admitted he killed the woman. But before the case can go to the jury, a mysterious Cockney woman calls Sir Wilfrid saying she has information to help his client. This sets in motion a series of twists leading up to the unexpected ending.

NOTE: A great deal of the fun and intrigue of Witness for the Prosecution lies in its triple twist ending. In order not to give the plot away to those who haven't seen it, we've posted SPOILER ALERTS before every paragraph that requires mentioning the surprise ending in order to more fully discuss the film's impact and appeal.

Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr., Edward Small
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus. Based on the play by Agatha Christie.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Matty Malneck
Cast: Tyrone Power (Leonard Stephen Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Helm/Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), John Williams (Brogan Moore), Henry Daniell (Mayhew), Ian Wolfe (Carter).
BW-117m. Letterboxed.

Why WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is Essential

Many people forget that Witness for the Prosecution is a Billy Wilder picture. Audiences are more used to his earlier, more hard-edged film noirs ­ Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Or the sharp and breezy Audrey Hepburn comedies of the 1950s ­ Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Or the later acerbic takes on modern American life ­ The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Witness for the Prosecution was, in fact, almost not a Wilder film at all; he wasn't particularly inspired or challenged by the idea of converting Agatha Christie's hit mystery play into a movie and had several other projects brewing in his head, including his dream project, a picture about Sherlock Holmes (which he eventually completed in 1970 under the title The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes). He was finally talked into directing Witness for the Prosecution by Marlene Dietrich, who admired and enjoyed working with her old friend; the two knew each other since their days in Berlin and Wilder had guided her through one of her best roles in A Foreign Affair (1948). Dietrich also knew that with Wilder at the helm she had a greater shot at landing the role of Christine Vole. Eventually, Wilder agreed to take the job with the assurance he could adapt the film in his own style.

That's exactly what he did, imbuing it with his playfully cynical sense of humor while focusing on duplicitousness, double-dealing and deceptive appearances, familiar aspects of his work since his first American film, the Ginger Rogers comedy The Major and the Minor (1942). And he made the material his own while retaining the twisted mystery of the play. In fact, according to Wilder himself, Agatha Christie said it was the best film adaptation ever done of her work.

The director not only embellished the original with distinctive Wilder touches, he actually improved on the play, using various devices to undercut the static nature of most courtroom dramas. He gave the film, and the Old Bailey scenes specifically, active visual and verbal excitement through the use of fluid camera movements, flashbacks and the diverting subplot of Sir Wilfrid's need for constant medical attention. Indeed, much of the suspense of the film lies in whether the aged barrister will make it through the grueling trial with all his health problems, not to mention the constantly surprising turn of events. And Wilder also plays up the comedic aspects of Sir Wilfrid's love-hate relationship with his nurse Miss Plimsoll who tries to wean him from his beloved cigars and brandy.

In this, Wilder was ably assisted by film and theater veteran Charles Laughton, taking what had been essentially a supporting role on stage and turning it into the central performance. His Sir Wilfrid is a disobedient child at one moment and a wily legal professional the very next (sometimes both at once), and the delight and total commitment with which Laughton attacked the role are evident throughout the picture. The actor particularly shines in his verbal duels with his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester, who received excellent critical notices for her role as Nurse Plimsoll. You could even say he steals the film from such prestigious cast members as Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, both of whom had been huge stars two decades earlier.

In casting the roles of Leonard Vole and Christine Helm, United Artists producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. wanted an actor and actress for both Witness for the Prosecution and their next film, Solomon and Sheba (1959). William Holden was the first choice for Leonard, but he was unavailable. Billy Wilder and Arthur Hornblow then went to Tyrone Power who turned down the part. Other actors considered for the role included Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, and even Roger Moore. Eventually, Tyrone Power accepted the role when he was offered both Witness for the Prosecution and Solomon and Sheba for $300,000 each. Before he could complete Solomon however, Power had a fatal heart attack and was replaced by Yul Brynner. Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were also considered for the role of Christine Helm.

Under Wilder's direction, Marlene Dietrich gave another distinctly original performance in Witness for the Prosecution. She had started as the muse of director Josef von Sternberg in a series of memorably erotic and lushly pictorial films of the 1930s, among them The Blue Angel (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Scarlet Empress (1934). From these movies emerged an image of an enigmatic woman of often-dubious background who lived for the pleasures of the flesh and the heart. After dissolving her partnership with von Sternberg, Dietrich's career had its ups and downs, and she was forced to redefine herself frequently while retaining the essential Dietrich mystique. Her role in Witness for the Prosecution traded on Dietrich's public and professional image while giving her a chance to display an acting range that surprised and impressed many critics and filmgoers.

With all the attention the film has received for its great ensemble acting, the work of designer Alexandre Trauner also deserves equal praise. Since the production was not allowed to use the actual Old Bailey courthouse in London, Trauner undertook the challenge of recreating it on a soundstage of the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood. He was not even allowed to shoot stills inside the building, so he made many detailed sketches. Built to scale, complete with a 22-foot-high ceiling and using either Austrian oak or mahogany (studio publicity is contradictory), the set cost $75,000 and was exact down to the minutest detail. Still, Trauner remarked with characteristic modesty, "The reality is better than the fake."

Witness for the Prosecution was an expensive film to make. The film rights to Agatha Christie's hit play cost a whopping (for the time) $435,000. Power was paid $150,000 for his work, and Dietrich $100,000. (By contrast, Laughton, who stole the picture and got the most critical attention, was paid only $75,000.) Designer Alexandre Trauner's meticulous recreation of London's Old Bailey courthouse also drove costs up considerably. Nevertheless, the film was a big hit with audiences and brought in $4 million at the box office.

Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Academy Awards. Charles Laughton was nominated for Best Actor and Elsa Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Sound, and Editing. And here we must insert a SPOILER ALERT before continuing for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet! Marlene Dietrich did not receive a nomination but many of her fans believe she deserved one for her dual role as Christine Helm and the Cockney woman. It's not until near the end of the film that Sir Wilfrid and the audience learn Christine was the mysterious woman. According to Steven Bach in Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, "Wilder went for surprise rather than the possibly confusing suspense of knowing Christine was up to something. The decision remains controversial.

Marlene's Cockney is widely thought to have gone unappreciated because realized only after the fact. Dietrich supporters claim Wilder's decision cost her an Academy Award nomination, though there are those who insist, even today, that the Cockney isn't Dietrich at all."

By Rob Nixon & Deborah Looney

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution pays homage to an earlier Wilder-Dietrich film, A Foreign Affair (1948). In a flashback to the meeting of Leonard (Power) and Christine (Dietrich) in Germany just after the war, Dietrich's character is markedly similar to Erika von Schluetow, the character she played in the earlier film, in looks, occupation (cabaret singer), and the devastating effect she had on men. Art director Alexandre Trauner even designed a set for Christine's cabaret appearance similar to the Lorelei Club where Erika worked in A Foreign Affair. For the flashback, Dietrich needed a song in the style that Friedrich Hollander had always written for her. But the composer had gone back to Germany, so Dietrich and Wilder found an old song about Hamburg's red-light district by Ralph Arthur Roberts, an actor-manager with whom Marlene had worked on the Berlin stage in the 1920s. It was given English lyrics and retitled "I May Never Go Home Anymore." Dietrich recorded it and made it a permanent part of her nightclub act.

A version of Witness for the Prosecution was made for television in 1982 with Beau Bridges, Diana Rigg, Ralph Richardson, and Deborah Kerr in the roles played in the film by Power, Dietrich, Laughton, and Lanchester. The popularity of Wilder's version is evident in that the TV movie used the original Wilder-Kurnitz film script and not the Agatha Christie stage play as its source material.

Witness for the Prosecution is referenced in the Robert Altman movie The Player (1992). The studio executive played by Tim Robbins escapes being arrested for a murder he committed because of an unreliable eyewitness to the crime. The studio security boss, played by Fred Ward, makes constant reference to old movies and even points out the unreliability of witnesses by citing Marlene Dietrich's character in the Wilder film.

By Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution was one of three movies directed by the prolific Billy Wilder in 1957. The other two were Love in the Afternoon with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper and The Spirit of St. Louis starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh.

Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton were husband and wife in real life. It was their eleventh and last film together.

Dietrich had delighted Laughton in the 1930s by declaring she would rather play a love scene with him than with anyone.

On its initial release in selected theaters - as the end title appeared - an announcer's voice requested patrons not reveal the movie's secret and spoil it for those who hadn't seen it.

This was Tyrone Power's last movie. Wilder originally wanted Kirk Douglas and also sought William Holden for the role of Leonard Vole. At various points Gene Kelly, Jack Lemmon, and Glenn Ford were all considered. But producer Edward Small tempted Power into a two-picture deal. The actor agreed to play the less showy part in Witness for the Prosecution and settled for the lead role in Small's production of Solomon and Sheba (1959). While on location in Spain, Power suffered a heart attack on the set of the biblical epic and died after filming nearly half the movie. Yul Brynner was brought in as his replacement and re-filmed most of Power's scenes. You can still see Power in long shots.

Ava Gardner was once considered for the role of Christine, and she said she would do it, if only for the chance to work with Wilder. But the director favored his old friend, Marlene Dietrich, over Gardner. The producers of Witness for the Prosecution were also interested in Rita Hayworth for the Dietrich part but Wilder was firmly opposed to this as he thought she was incapable of handling the role.

Designer Alexandre Trauner was once honored at the Telluride Film Festival for his distinguished body of work, which began in France in 1934 and ended with his last film The Rainbow Thief (1990). He worked on eight Billy Wilder films and won the Oscar for The Apartment (1960). He also had a small role in Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957) and was an uncredited producer of Irma La Douce (1963). Trauner's most famous work apart from Wilder includes The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Round Midnight (1986), and the French classic Children of Paradise (1945), a risky undertaking for Trauner, a Jew working undercover in Nazi-occupied France.

Una O'Connor, who lays the snipish housekeeper in both the stage and film versions, appeared with Laughton in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and The Canterville Ghost (1944). She also had a role in Lanchester's most famous film (in which the latter appeared as both Mary Shelley and the monster) - Bride of Frankenstein (1935). And she appeared with Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933) and with Tyrone Power in Lloyds of London (1936). Witness for the Prosecution was her last film.

Famous Quotes from WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton): "The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind finely."

Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester): "Teeny weeny flight of steps, Sir Wilfrid, we mustn't forget we've had a teeny weeny heart attack."

Sir Wilfrid: "If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you."

Servant: "Sorry, Sir Wilfrid, but Miss Plimsoll has issued an ultimatum. If you are not in bed in one minute, she will resign."
Sir Wilfrid: "Splendid. Give her a month's pay and kick her down the stairs."

Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich): "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."

Janet McKenzie (Una O'Connor): "Perhaps you can help me, your Lordship. Six months, I have applied for my hearing aid and I am still waiting for it."
Judge (Francis Compton): "My dear Madame. Considering the rubbish that is being taught nowadays, you are missing very little."

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power): "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."

Sir Wilfrid: "I am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders."

Cockney Woman (displaying her scarred face to the prosecutor): "Wanna kiss me, ducky?"

Compiled by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Agatha Christie's mystery play was a big hit in London in 1954 and an equal success during its Broadway run, which began in late 1954. Several studios were competing for the film rights when the show's producer wisely acquired them for $400,000, a rather staggering sum for a theater piece at that time. The wisdom of the deal was apparent shortly after, however, when independent film producer Edward Small bought them for $435,000. Small saw the box office potential of Christie's ingenious story and approached Arthur Hornblow, Jr. about signing onto the project. Hornblow had been a successful studio producer for many years, notable at Paramount in the 1940s, where he guided the production of Billy Wilder's first American directorial effort, The Major and the Minor (1942). Hornblow had already made his mark as an independent with the epic musical, Oklahoma! (1955) and was eager to enhance his reputation further with Witness for the Prosecution.

Courtroom dramas have long been a staple of the stage, where audiences can get intensely involved with the action and almost assume the roles of judge and jury. On screen, however, such scenes can be deadly if there is too much verbal exposition. When Billy Wilder finally agreed to direct Witness for the Prosecution, he made sure to fashion a script that avoided the inherent pitfalls. For a collaborator he DID NOT chose his former partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had written classic scripts for Ninotchka (1939), Ball of Fire (1941), and several of Wilder's best-known films of the 1940s. He also overlooked his current collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, co-scripter of Love in the Afternoon (1957) and with whom Wilder would create the remaining eleven films of his career. For this one film alone, he chose Harry Kurnitz, an Anglophile and experienced mystery author.

The two quickly realized what the story needed was some humor, achieved by creating a new character, Nurse Plimsoll, and giving the aged barrister Sir Wilfrid a heart condition for her to cluck over. Wilder also knew you couldn't cast Marlene Dietrich in a picture without including one of her trademark musical numbers or giving audiences a glimpse of those justifiably famous legs. He accomplished this with a flashback to postwar Germany, where Dietrich's character sings for her supper in a seedy dive frequented by the kind of toughs who wouldn't hesitate to tear her trouser leg off in a fit of fanatic adulation. The flashbacks also served to break up the courtroom action and provide background into Vole's relationship with both his wife and other women.

Wilder and Kurnitz also wisely chose to emphasize character as strongly as the mystery plot. "In our film it is Laughton who pulls the whole thing together," Wilder said. "He is much more important than (his character) was in the play. The puzzle is good, but it is still a gimmick. Laughton is a person, a man."

By Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Production began on Witness for the Prosecution before the leads were even cast. But once they were, Wilder only allowed the cast and crew to view an abridged version; it was missing the final ten pages. Likely that was more of a public relations ploy than anything else, an attempt to create a heightened air of mystery and suspense around the story and its surprise ending. If asked by reporters, the actors could say even they were not let in on the ending. The producers pushed that further by stationing guards at the doors to the soundstages, according to Variety. It was also said that at a command performance in London, Hornblow had managed to get the royal family to sign pledges that they would not divulge the film's surprise ending to their subjects.

Co-screenwriter Harry Kurnitz, who much preferred being a fashionable boulevardier to a hard-working writer, found Wilder an exhausting collaborator. He once described the director at work as "actually two people ­ Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde."

Kurnitz never worked with Wilder again after this and explained why in 1964, saying the typical Wilder collaborators "have a hunted look, shuffle nervously, and have been known to break into tears if a door slams anywhere in the same building. ... (Wilder) is a fiend at work."

The cast found Wilder much more simpatico than Kurnitz and this contributed to a positive atmosphere on the set. Laughton, who could be moody and difficult, was apparently a dream to work with on this project as well, throwing himself into the role with dedication and delight. Wilder later recalled a day that was set aside just for shooting reaction shots of the jury and courtroom crowd (composed of extras hired only for the day). Normally, the assistant director would read the actors' lines and the extras would react. However, Laughton, who was fascinated with the whole process of filmmaking, begged to help. So he came in on his day off and read all of the off-camera speeches for the jury members. He read not only his part, but also the judge's, the prosecutor's and even Marlene Dietrich's. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow in his book Billy Wilder in Hollywood, the author said, "it was an exhibition of craftsmanship such as Wilder had never seen. He believes that Charles Laughton had the greatest technical range and power of any actor, man or woman, whom he has known."

Marlene Dietrich and Billy Wilder enjoyed a long-running mutual admiration society. She praised him repeatedly as both an artist and a human being, calling him the kindest, sweetest man she had ever known. And he once said of her, "If we had to invent someone to be the ideal woman...we would have to invent Dietrich." She threw herself into the part with gritty determination, approaching it, Wilder said, "as if she thought her career depended on it." Dietrich later said Christine Vole was the only role she ever felt emotionally connected to because "she's not only brave, but she loves her man unconditionally."

SPOILER ALERT

Where Dietrich really demonstrated her acting chops was in the relatively short but key scenes where Christine disguises herself as a disfigured Cockney woman in order to give Sir Wilfrid some "evidence" that will allow him to prove the vindictive Christine a liar on the stand, thereby clearing Vole of all charges. "Marlene was forever up at our house, trying on scarves, shawls, and various wigs, and taking lessons in Cockney from Charles," Lanchester later said. "She was obsessed with this impersonation. I never saw anyone work so hard." Dietrich's old friend Orson Welles, who usually created fake profiles for himself in every role, helped her create a fake nose and scar for the Cockney. The original costume was rejected because it made her look too much like a man. So her appearance was softened somewhat, but still far enough removed from Dietrich so that audiences failed to recognize her on screen. To this day, some people still insist another actress stepped in for the part and that Dietrich's lines were dubbed. But there is no evidence to support this. The actress, in fact, worked extremely hard on the accent, too. Besides Laughton, she received coaching from playwright Noel Coward, who noted in his diary, "It is not easy to teach Cockney to a German glamour-puss who can't pronounce her Rs, but she did astonishingly well."

SPOILER ALERT

It was up to Billy Wilder whether or not to cue the audience in to the deception. He decided to go with the element of surprise rather than reveal the ploy. But the deceptive cameo is believed to have cost Dietrich an Oscar nomination, because the producers didn't want to campaign on behalf of her performance in a dual role. In her memoirs, she said not being nominated for Witness for the Prosecution meant nothing to her. But Wilder said she was extremely disappointed, an opinion borne out by a story that she had called columnist Radie Harris before final voting and asked him to state in print that she deserved to win. It was also said she had recorded an intro to her Las Vegas act for the day nominations were announced, urging the audience to welcome Academy Award nominee Marlene Dietrich. When she learned she didn't get the nod, the intro had to be re-recorded.

Even Dietrich's well-known vanities and foibles worked in her favor in Witness for the Prosecution. Elsa Lanchester used to delight in broadcasting Marlene's secrets. Although Dietrich was never secretive about her famous "tape lifts," Lanchester detailed their use to anyone who would listen (One of the most avid listeners was Laughton, who urged a make-up man to steal one so he could try it). The lifts were stuck to the side of Dietrich's head where she wanted skin to be lifted. Then the long threads hanging from them were woven into hair at the back of her head, forcing the tabs to pull the skin very tight. A wig then covered the network of tabs and threads. Lanchester joked that Dietrich wouldn't dare to pull or twist her face for fear of loosening a lift. In the film, one can see how Dietrich rarely breaks the cold passiveness of her expression and moves her whole body rather than her head. The effect, however, is not one of pathetic vanity but of the actions of a woman of steely single-mindedness and willful deception.

Dietrich's characterization of a woman desperately in love was also enhanced by her real-life crush on Tyrone Power during shooting. According to his biographer, the actor was embarrassed by her advances, but to be fair, it should be noted that Wilder said Laughton (who was homosexual) also had a crush on Power.

By Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Based on the play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is a complex courtroom drama filled with deceptions, disguises, and plot twists. According to the New York Times, "the air in the courtroom fairly crackles with emotional electricity, until that staggering surprise in the last reel. Then the whole drama explodes."

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is an aging barrister recovering from a heart attack. Against the advice of doctors and his nurse, played by Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, Sir Wilfrid decides to defend Leonard Vole. Vole (Tyrone Power) is on trial for the murder of a wealthy widow. His wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), is his only alibi, but Sir Wilfrid doubts whether she is telling the truth. Additionally, Christine reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she is not Leonard Vole's wife. She was already married when they met during the war in Germany. Ultimately Christine is called as a witness for the prosecution, testifying Leonard admitted he killed the woman. But before the case can go to the jury, a mysterious Cockney woman calls Sir Wilfrid saying she has information to help his client. This sets in motion a series of twists leading up to the unexpected ending.

Billy Wilder, known for such films as Double Indemnity (1944), Sabrina (1954) and Some Like It Hot (1959), directed and co-wrote this adaptation of Agatha Christie's hit play. In the book Billy Wilder in Hollywood, author Maurice Zolotow states, "Wilder's idea of an actor is somebody like Charles Laughton." The director was very impressed with Laughton's abilities. On his day off when extras were brought in to film reaction shots, Laughton begged to help out. He read all of the off-camera speeches for the jury members. He read not only his part, but also the judge's, the prosecutor's and even Marlene Dietrich's. According to Zolotow, "it was an exhibition of craftsmanship such as Wilder had never seen. He believes that Charles Laughton had the greatest technical range and power of any actor, man or woman, whom he has known."

In casting the roles of Leonard Vole and Christine Helm, United Artists producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr., wanted an actor and actress for both Witness for the Prosecution and their next film, Solomon and Sheba (1959). William Holden was the first choice for Leonard, but he was unavailable. Billy Wilder and Arthur Hornblow then went to Tyrone Power, who turned down the part. Other actors considered for the role included Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, and even Roger Moore. Eventually, Tyrone Power accepted the role when he was offered both Witness for the Prosecution and Solomon and Sheba for $300,000 each. Before he could complete Solomon however, Power had a fatal heart attack and was replaced by Yul Brynner. Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were also considered for the role of Christine Helm.

Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Academy Awards. Charles Laughton was nominated for Best Actor and Elsa Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Sound, and Editing. And, before continuing, we must insert a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet! Marlene Dietrich did not receive a nomination but many of her fans believe she deserved one for her dual role as Christine Helm and the Cockney woman. It's not until near the end of the film that Sir Wilfrid and the audience learn Christine was the mysterious woman. According to Steven Bach in Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, "Wilder went for surprise rather than the possibly confusing suspense of knowing Christine was up to something. The decision remains controversial.

Marlene's Cockney is widely thought to have gone unappreciated because realized only after the fact. Dietrich supporters claim Wilder's decision cost her an Academy Award nomination, though there are those who insist, even today, that the Cockney isn't Dietrich at all."

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr., Edward Small
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus. Based on the play by Agatha Christie.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Matty Malneck
Cast: Tyrone Power (Leonard Stephen Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Helm/Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), John Williams (Brogan Moore), Henry Daniell (Mayhew), Ian Wolfe (Carter).
BW-117m. Letterboxed.

by Deborah Looney

back to top
teaser Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Awards & Honors

Witness for the Prosecution received Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton), Best Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Best Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). It didn't win in any category.

Elsa Lanchester won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

Ironically, Charles Laughton, who was born and raised in England, was nominated as Best Foreign Actor by the British Academy Awards.

The film also scored an Edgar Allen Poe Award Best Picture nomination for the screenplay.

The Critics' Corner

"For a courtroom melodrama pegged to a single plot device ­ a device that, of course, everybody promises not to reveal ­ Witness for the Prosecution comes off extraordinarily well. ... Mr. Laughton adds a wealth of comical by-play to his bag of courtroom tricks. A certain famous British Prime Minister has plainly inspired his artful airs and gravelly voice. And Miss Lanchester is delicious as that maidenly henpecking nurse."
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, February 7, 1958.

"Power does a winning job as the ingratiating defendant who seems incapable of murder, and Miss Dietrich is in good form, histrionically and physically, as the cause of much bafflement through the picture until the explanations are finally given."
- Variety, December 4, 1957.

"There is no courtroom drama more enjoyable than this adaptation of Agatha Christie's play. ... The most fun comes from trying to figure out if the obvious overacting by the defendant and witnesses is being done by the actors or the characters they're portraying. The picture is well cast."
- Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986).

"Dietrich is magnificent in her role as 'wife of the accused' in Billy Wilder's intelligent adaptation of Agatha Christie's stage play. As a German emigré, much of the character's background could be scenes from Dietrich's own life (including the classic Berlin cabaret flashback). This added plausibility adds to the melee of plots surrounding this pacey and witty courtroom drama."
- Matthew White, Edinburgh University Film Society program, 1993­94.

By Rob Nixon

back to top