Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film)

Witness for the Prosecution

Original poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Screenplay by Larry Marcus
Billy Wilder
Harry Kurnitz
Based on The Witness for the Prosecution
1925 story
by Agatha Christie
Starring Tyrone Power
Marlene Dietrich
Charles Laughton
Music by Matty Malneck
Ralph Arthur Robert
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Edward Small Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
December 17, 1957 (Limited U.S. release)
30 January 1958 (Premiere, London)
Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $9 million

Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American courtroom drama film with elements of Film Noir set in the Old Bailey in London. The film, based on a play by Agatha Christie, deals with the trial of a man accused of murder. The first film adaptation of this story, it stars Tyrone Power (in his final screen role), Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton, and features Elsa Lanchester. The film was adapted by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and the film's director, Billy Wilder.


Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), a master barrister in ill health, takes on Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) as a client, despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who says the doctor warns him against taking on any criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich, older widow who had become enamoured with him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Vole as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid believes Vole is innocent.

When Sir Wilfrid 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 called as a witness for the prosecution. While a wife cannot testify against her husband, Christine was in fact still married to a German man when she wed Leonard (who was in the Royal Air Force and part of the occupation forces in Germany). 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, Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman who, for a fee, provides him with letters written by Christine herself to a mysterious lover named Max. The affair revealed by this correspondence gives Christine such a strong motive to have lied that the jury finds Leonard not guilty.

However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was "...too neat, too tidy, and altogether...too symmetrical!" His belief proves correct when Christine, left alone with him by chance in the courtroom, takes the opportunity to take credit for the verdict. Sir Wilfrid had told her before the trial that "...no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife". So, she had instead given testimony implicating her husband, had then forged the letters to the non-existent Max, and had herself in disguise played the mysterious woman handing over the letters which then discredited her own testimony and led to the acquittal. She furthermore admits that she saved Leonard even though she knew he was guilty because she loves him.

Leonard has overheard Christine's admission and, now protected by double jeopardy, cheerfully confirms to Sir Wilfred that he had indeed killed Mrs French. Sir Wilfrid is infuriated at being had. Leonard then coldly tells Christine that he has met a younger woman (Ruta Lee) and is leaving Christine. In a jealous rage, Christine grabs a knife, which had earlier been used as evidence by the defence (and subtly highlighted by Sir Wilfrid's monocle light-reflection), and stabs Leonard to death. After she is taken away by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on Christine's defence.


Credited cast

Appearing in bit parts

Cast notes

This was Power's final completed film. He died during the filming of Solomon and Sheba.

In real life, Lanchester was Charles Laughton's wife.

Una O'Connor was the only member of the original Broadway play's cast to reprise her role on film. It was also her final film; she retired from acting after its completion.


Producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small bought the rights to the play for $450,000. The play was adjusted to build up the character of the defence barrister.[1] Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.[2]

Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was well known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.[1]

Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich were leading candidates to play the female lead.[3]

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. The scene required 145 extras, 38 stuntmen and $90,000.[4]


At the end of the film, as the credits roll, a voice-over announces:

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.

This was in keeping with the advertising campaign for the film: one of the posters for the film said: "You'll talk about it, but please don't tell the ending."[5]

The effort to keep the ending a secret extended to the cast. Billy Wilder did not give the actors the final ten pages of the script until it was time to shoot those scenes. The secrecy reportedly cost Marlene Dietrich an Academy Award, as United Artists didn't want to call attention to the fact that Dietrich was practically unrecognizable as the Cockney woman who hands over the incriminating letters to the defence.[6]


The film received extremely positive reviews,[7] and currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[8] In TV Guide's review of the film, it received four and a half stars out of five, the writer saying that "Witness for the Prosecution is a witty, terse adaptation of the Agatha Christie hit play brought to the screen with ingenuity and vitality by Billy Wilder."[9]

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 (Gordon E Sawyer).[10]

Marlene Dietrich was nominated for a Golden Globe but the studio didn’t want to campaign for her as they might give away the twist ending. Lanchester also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

Dietrich's quote "Wanna kiss me, Ducky?" became particularly famous.

American Film Institute included the film in AFI's 10 Top 10 as #6 in the Courtroom Drama category.

Other adaptations

The first adaptation of the Agatha Christie story was a BBC television production made in 1949, with a running time of 75 minutes.

Another early production of Witness for the Prosecution was in the form of a live telecast on CBS's Lux Video Theatre on September 17, 1953, starring Edward G Robinson, Andrea King and Tom Drake.[11]

Agatha Christie's play was first performed in Nottingham on 28 September 1953, opened in London on 28 October 1953 and on Broadway on 16 December 1954.[12]

In 1982, Witness for the Prosecution was remade as a television film, 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.

In 2016, Deadline announced that Ben Affleck will direct, produce and act in a remake of Witness for the Prosecution for 20th Century Fox.[13]


Witness for the Prosecution was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on 11 December 2001 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD, and by Kino Lorber (under licence from MGM) to Blu-ray on 22 July 2014 as a Region 1 widescreen disc.

See also


  1. 1 2 "A Town Called Hollywood: Outcome of Christie Play Kept Dark Secret for Film", Scheuer, Philip K., Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 July 1957: p. E2.
  2. "NEW MOVIE DEAL FOR BILLY WILDER: Signed to Direct 'Witness for the Prosecution' After Completing 2 Other Films R.K.O. Buys Rose TV Play", by Thomas M. Pryor, New York Times, 27 April 1956: p.22.
  3. Louella Parsons: Wilder to Do Broadway, London Hit The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 30 Apr 1956: 32.
  4. Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Movie Database
  5. "Witness for the Prosecution" at Movie Poster Database
  6. Osborne, Robert. Comments on TCM broadcast 29 October 2008
  7. 'WITNESS FOR PROSECUTION' DYNAMIC COURTROOM FILM Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Dec 1957: B14.
  8. Witness for the Prosecution at Rotten Tomatoes
  9. "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  10. "The 30th Academy Awards (1958) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
  11. "Witness for the Prosecution" at the official Andrea King website
  12. Witness for the Prosecution at the Internet Broadway Database
  13. McNary, Dave. "Ben Affleck Directing, Starring in 'Witness for the Prosecution' Remake". Variety.com. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
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