“The question is whether you were lying then or are you lying now, or whether, in fact, you are a chronic and habitual … LIAR!”— Sir Wilfrid to Christine Vole
Witness for the Prosecution is not the usual Agatha Christie mystery. Never introduced as a self-contained mystery like most of the author’s works, it first appeared as part of a short story collection in 1933, was made into a play in 1948 and, finally, adapted for the screen in 1957.
The film’s director and screenwriter, Billy Wilder, incorporated some highly beneficial changes—it might even be said, improvements. The major addition was a nagging nurse (Elsa Lanchester) for Sir Wilfrid ([intlink id=”665” type=”category”]Charles Laughton[/intlink]) who has recently suffered a heart attack, it, too, a Wilder idea. The interplay between the two characters—they open the film leaving the hospital and she has the last line as they leave the courtroom—is, in some ways, the best part of the enterprise.
Witness features another departure from most Christie mysteries, that famous hallmark of the Hercule Poriot series, where the multitude of suspects are assembled at the climax for a dénouement. In Witness, there is only one suspect, the seemingly guileless Leonard Vole ([intlink id=”213” type=”category”]Tyrone Power[/intlink]), a home-grown inventor at loose ends. Whether he is guilty or not is the “mystery” of the movie, the extent of the suspense—up to a point.
His only alibi is provided by his wife, Christine ([intlink id=”1246” type=”category”]Marlene Dietrich[/intlink]), a cabaret singer from bombed-out Hamburg he had married after World War II. In her first meeting with Sir Wilfrid, she swears he was home with her when an elderly lady, Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), was murdered.
Leonard’s charm had pretty much seduced the lady when he advised her, just by nods and grimaces through a London shop window, on the purchase of a proper hat. They had become friends, Leonard often stopping by her flat for canasta, Gilbert and Sullivan recordings and stories about her late dentist husband’s adventures in Africa. Showing Vole a witch doctor’s mask, she laughs and says that he always wore it when pulling patients’ teeth, calling himself a “witch dentist.” “Herbert,” she adds, “was so witty.” Vole’s response is apathetic.
Janet (Una O’Connor), Mrs. French’s cook, has a low opinion of Leonard’s invention, a three-beater egg beater that separates the yolk from the white. Still, he is seeking financial help from Mrs. French, which seems to lower the possibility of him being her murderer. Or maybe not.
Even though Sir Wilfrid is warned by his doctor and manservant (Ian Wolfe), and badgered by his nurse Miss Plimsoll, that he must avoid all criminal cases, he takes on Leonard Vole’s—perhaps as a challenge and perhaps, too, because Vole apparently passes the “monocle test.” Putting the eye piece in his right eye, Sir Wilfrid catches the reflection of light and directs it into this suspect’s face, without any suspicious reaction. “Passed with flying colors,” he tells legal friend Mayhew (Henry Daniell). When the same test is applied to Christine, she immediately goes to a window and draws the shade, which may, or may not, reveal something about her veracity.
“I’m certainly surprised,” Sir Wilfrid says at one point in his usual droll manner, “that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.” As further evidence of the humor that shares an equal part with the murder mystery, there is Sir Wilfrid’s response to Vole’s lament about Mrs. French. “So weird,” Vole says, “to think of her now, lying in that living room, murdered.” “I assure you,” Sir Wildrid responds, “she’s been moved by now. To leave her around would be unfeeling, unlawful—and unsanitary.”
Leonard Vole, being an American and untutored in British legal ways, falsely believes he already has on his side two “lawyers,” Mayhew and Sir Wilfrid. Mayhew, however, sets him straight: “I am a solicitor. Sir Wilfrid is a barrister. Only a barrister can actually plead a case in court.”
Because photography is not allowed inside London’s Old Bailey, and because in 1957 much of Hollywood was still filming on sets, an accurate replica of the courtroom was constructed. All the filming, easily done on sets, was restricted to the courtroom, Sir Wilfrid’s townhouse, Vole’s Hamburg flashbacks and one somewhat critical excursion to a cockney pub in London’s East End. Like, say, Separate Tables, also mistaken for a British film, Witness was filmed entirely on Samuel Goldwyn sound stages.
There does appear an exterior view of the actual Old Bailey, with a camera-tilt down from its spire, with Lady Justice, her arms outstretched from her shoulders, and tiers of workmen’s ladders, perhaps a repairing underway of World War II damage.
As for most of the other supporting actors, they were recruited from the British colony in Hollywood. Besides the stars already mentioned, a few other Brits include John Williams, Torin Thatcher, Philip Tonge, Francis Compton, Patrick Aherne (brother of Brian) and Ben Wright.
Somewhat the outsider among all the British and the one American, Marlene nevertheless couldn’t appear in a movie and not sing and dance. She does both—and has a chance to show off those famous legs, at least one of them through a convenient tear in her clothes during a beer hall brawl. As Donald Spoto wrote in Blue Angel, his biography of Marlene, “ … it was the last glimpse, in film history, of this Prussian cheesecake.” Written for her, the single song, “I May Never Go Home Any More,” was belted out in typical Dietrich style. Music by Ralph Arthur Roberts, lyrics by Jack Brooks.
Laughton, consummate actor though he was, didn’t know if he could be a convincing heart patient and so staged an attack in his Hollywood pool, with presumably satisfactory results. Ironically, it was Tyrone Power who had a heart problem. Less than a year after the film’s premiere, Power died during a duel with George Sanders on the set of Solomon and Sheba. Laughton would die from cancer in 1962.
During his courtroom scenes, Sir Wilfrid idly lines up his assortment of pills and deliberately shows nurse Plimsoll in the gallery that he’s taking his pill with the “lukewarm” cocoa. His manservant had earlier replaced it with an identical Thermos of brandy and Sir Wilfrid believes he has outwitted the eagle eye of his female nemesis.
Amid the hypothesis of a possible burglary, revelations about blood types, voices heard in the next room and a dramatic, plot-changing surprise at the end, the underlying humor of the film is maintained in the trial, much of it to do with Janet. The best moment, aside from her query of the judge as to why the government hadn’t sent her hearing aid, is her response to Sir Wilfrid’s suggestion that she might be agonistic toward Leonard Vole. “I’m not agonistic to him,” she replies. “He’s a shiftless, scheming rascal, but I’m not antagonistic to him.”
Reminiscent of a technique Alfred Hitchcock would use for Psycho publicity in 1960—denied admittance after the film had started and warned not to reveal the shower scene—everyone connected with Witness, even visitors like [intlink id=”35” type=”category”]William Holden[/intlink] and Noel Coward, were sworn to secrecy. There was a large, poster-size affidavit which everyone had to sign, not to reveal the dramatic turnabout at film’s end.
And, likewise, so shall that surprise not be revealed here.
But, oh, why not divulge that last line of the film, the one belonging to nurse Plimsoll? All along, she was on to “Wilfrid the fox,” as she dubbed him when she found three cigars stashed inside his walking cane. That final line, just before the two left the courtroom, now arm in arm, is, as she held up the Thermos——