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31 Days of Oscar University: Law Department (2/18)
Remind Me

Witness For The Prosecution

Thursday May, 31 2018 at 10:00 PM

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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



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