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Witness for the Prosecution

Witness for the Prosecution(1957)


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As the end credits roll, an offscreen voice addresses the audience with the following statement: "The management of this theater 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." According to the film's pressbook, at previews, audience members received, and were asked to sign, cards that read, "I solemnly swear I will not reveal the ending of Witness for the Prosecution." The pressbook, reviews and various articles about the production stated that the principal cast members themselves did not even know the ending of the film until the last day of shooting, when the final ten pages of the script were presented to them. Various news items reported that extras appearing as courtroom spectators were changed when the ending was shot to ensure greater secrecy.
       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." A major difference between Christie's original story, her play and the film is that the story ended when Romaine reveals that she devised her plan because she knew Leonard was guilty, whereas the play and film continue on, with the added twist of Romaine/Christine stabbing Leonard to death.
       According to a January 26, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Christie's agent, Harold Ober, set an asking price of $450,000 for the film rights to her play, with bids to be submitted by February 1, 1955. A Hollywood Reporter news item on June 23, 1955 stated that Louis B. Mayer was "understood" to have acquired the rights to the play for $300,000 and planned to produce a film adaptation in England under Clarence Brown's direction. However, a August 17, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Gilbert Miller, who had co-produced the Broadway production of the play with Peter Saunders, had acquired the screen rights for $325,000. A January 30, 1955 Daily Variety news item stated that Edward Small had secured the film rights and, as stated in the film's pressbook, the price paid for the rights was "just a little bit under half a million dollars." According to a July 14, 1957 Los Angeles Times news item, Small actually bought the rights from Gilbert for $430,000. The January 1955 news item added that the potential release date for any film version would be 1958, unless the play closed earlier. Although the Broadway production did close in mid-1956, the national release of the film did not occur until February 1958.
       A Hollywood Reporter news item on August 20, 1957 states that the song "I May Never Go Home Anymore," which had words by Jack Brooks and arrangements by Matty Malneck, was based on a German tune; however, the film credits the music to Ralph Arthur Roberts, and no additional information about a German source for the melody has been located. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, actor Pat Aherne was added to the cast but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
       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. As noted in some modern sources, the flashback sequence set in a post-World War II German tavern, which was not in the original play, is very reminiscent of a sequence in Wilder's 1948 film A Foreign Affair, which also starred Marlene Dietrich (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). According to the July 14, 1957 Los Angeles Times article, Charles Laughton modeled his characterization of "Sir Wilfrid Robarts," including the use of a monocle to intimidate Leonard, on Florance Guedella, an Englishman who was both Laughton's and Dietrich's lawyer and who was famous for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.
       For the Euston Station sequence, in which Christine disguises herself as a Cockney woman, Dietrich wore heavy makeup to disguise her face, especially her well-known high cheekbones. An item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column on September 18, 1957 stated "They called in a British belle to dub Marlene Dietrich's Cockney-type talk" for the sequence. However, on September 19, 1957, the column printed a retraction, apologizing for the "storm in a Wagnerian teacup," stating that Hornblow and many of Dietrich's friends had telephoned to state that, although Dietrich was coached by a British woman, she herself provided the Cockney voice in the film. Many modern sources have commented on the controversy. Although in the Euston Station sequence the Cockney woman's voice appears to be dubbed, when Dietrich repeats some of the lines later in the film, it is more apparent that Dietrich herself provided the distinctive voice for both scenes.
       Witness for the Prosecution received excellent reviews, with many critics comparing it favorably with the theatrical productions. The Los Angeles Examiner reviewer called the picture "that once in a blue-moon movie that has everything," and the Saturday Review (of Literature) critic stated "it makes an even better movie-a tense, mystifying melodrama full of fascinating oddball characters and intriguingly inexplicable situations." The film was a box office success and received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Direction, Film Editing, Sound Recording, Best Supporting Actress, Elsa Lanchester and Best Actor, Charles Laughton.
       Witness for the Prosecution was the last film completed by Tyrone Power. Power died in 1958 while on the set of the film Solomon and Sheba. Witness for the Prosecution was also the last film in which married actors Laughton and Lanchester appeared together and the final film appearance of longtime character actress Una O'Connor (1880-1959) who recreated the role of "Janet" from the Broadway production of the play. Modern sources include Franklyn Farnum, Colin Kenny, William H. O'Brien and Norbert Schiller in the cast.
       There have been many revivals of Christie's play on the stage, and several live television productions of the story, both in Britain and the United States. A 1982 American TV movie directed by Alan Gibson and starring Beau Bridges, Dianna Rigg, Ralph Richardson and Deborah Kerr was adapted from the Billy Wilder film. In September 2003, television producer David E. Kelley announced that he was writing a script for a new feature film version of the play, which would be the first theatrical film adaptation of a Christie work since an American production of Ten Little Indians released in 1989.