Witness for the Prosecution (1957 film)

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Witness for the Prosecution
Movie poster for "Witness for the Prosecution".jpg
Original release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byLarry Marcus
Billy Wilder
Harry Kurnitz
Based onThe Witness for the Prosecution
1926 story / 1953 play
by Agatha Christie
Produced byArthur Hornblow Jr.
StarringTyrone Power
Marlene Dietrich
Charles Laughton
Elsa Lanchester
CinematographyRussell Harlan
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Music byMatty Malneck
Edward Small Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • December 17, 1957 (1957-12-17) (Limited U.S. release)
  • January 30, 1958 (1958-01-30) (Premiere, London)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million[1]
Box office$9 million

Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American legal mystery thriller film co-adapted and directed by Billy Wilder, and starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. The film, which has elements of bleak black comedy and film noir, depicts an English courtroom drama. Set in the Old Bailey in London, the picture is based on the 1953 play of the same name by Agatha Christie and deals with the trial of a man accused of murder. The first film adaptation of Christie's story, Witness for the Prosecution was adapted for the screen by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and Wilder. The film received positive reviews and six Academy Award nominations.


Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a senior barrister, just recovering from a heart attack, takes on the case of Leonard Vole. This is despite the objections of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who says the doctor has warned him against taking on any criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs Emily French, a wealthy, childless, older widow who had become enamoured of 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, he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi, although by no means an entirely convincing one. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when, during the trial, she is summoned as a witness by the prosecuting barrister.

While a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband, Christine was, in fact, still married to Otto Helm, a German man now living in East Germany in the Russian Zone, when she wed Vole (who was in the Royal Air Force and part of the occupation forces in Germany at the time, and married her to help her escape Germany). She testifies that Vole privately confessed to her that he had killed Mrs French, and 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 handwriting is genuine, and the woman has legitimate reason for handing them over – her face has been scarred and slashed, supposedly by this "Max". The affair the letters outline, and one paragraph in particular detailing Max and Christine's plan to lie and get rid of Leonard, convinces the jury that Christine had deliberately perjured herself. Leonard is acquitted, much to the crowd's delight.

However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was "...too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical!" He is proved correct when Christine, brought into the courtroom for safety after being assailed by the departing crowd for her conduct, tells him he had help winning the case. Sir Wilfrid had told her before the trial that "...no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife". So, she played a hateful, double-crossing wife and gave testimony implicating her husband, then forged the letters to the non-existent "Max", and had herself in disguise played the mysterious woman handing over the letters, discrediting her own testimony and leading to the acquittal. She admits she saved Leonard, although she knew he was guilty, because she loves him. She accepts that she may be tried for perjury.

Leonard, who has overheard Christine's admission, cheerfully confirms that he indeed killed Mrs French. Sir Wilfrid is infuriated but helpless to stop him now, thanks to double jeopardy laws (since overturned) which would prevent Leonard being retried. Christine also suffers a major shock when she finds Leonard has been having an affair with a younger woman and plans to abandon Christine for her, feeling he and Christine are now "even", i.e. having saved each other's lives.

Christine angrily grabs a knife (used earlier as evidence and subtly highlighted by Sir Wilfrid's monocle light-reflection) and kills Leonard. After she is taken away by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on Christine's defence.




Cast notes[edit]

Witness for the Prosecution was Power's final completed film. He died of a heart attack after a lengthy dueling sequence two-thirds of the way through the filming of director King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba (1959) and was replaced by Yul Brynner.[2]

In real life, Elsa 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.[3] Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.[4] According to Wilder, when the producers approached Dietrich about the part she accepted on the condition that Wilder direct. Wilder said Dietrich liked "to play a murderess" but was "a little bit embarrassed when playing the love scenes."[5]

Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was well known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.[3]

Vivien Leigh as well as Dietrich was a leading candidate to play Christine Vole.[6]

In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers, made famous by Dietrich in director Josef von Sternberg’s film Morocco (1930).[7] 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.[8] The Bar is called Die blaue Laterne (English: The Blue Lantern), which is a reference to Dietrich's famous movie The Blue Angel.

United Artists' "surprise ending" caveat[edit]

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

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.[9]

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!"[10]

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.[11]


The film received extremely positive reviews. Agatha Christie "herself considered it the finest film derived from one of her stories."[12][13] It currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews with an average rating of 8.53/10.[14] 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."[15]

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

The film reached number one at the US box office for two consecutive weeks in February and March 1958.[16]


Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards[17] Best Picture Arthur Hornblow Jr. Nominated
Best Director Billy Wilder Nominated
Best Actor Charles Laughton Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Elsa Lanchester Nominated
Best Film Editing Daniel Mandell Nominated
Best Sound Recording Gordon E. Sawyer Nominated
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role Charles Laughton Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Billy Wilder Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Charles Laughton Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Marlene Dietrich Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Elsa Lanchester Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Billy Wilder Nominated
Laurel Awards Top Drama 4th Place
Top Female Dramatic Performance Marlene Dietrich 2nd Place
Online Film & Television Association Awards Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Won

Other adaptations[edit]

The first adaptation of the Agatha Christie story was a BBC television production made in 1949, with a running time of 75 minutes.[18]

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.[19]

Christie's play was first performed in Nottingham on 28 September 1953, opened in London on 28 October and on Broadway on 16 December 1954.[20]

In 1982, Witness for the Prosecution was remade as a television film, starring Sir Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Dames Wendy Hiller, and Diana Rigg.[21] It was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and John Gay from the original screenplay and directed by Alan Gibson.[22]

In 2016, a miniseries starring Billy Howle, Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall and David Haig was broadcast on BBC One and received widespread acclaim.[23]

Also in 2016, Deadline Hollywood announced that Ben Affleck would direct, produce and act in a remake of Witness for the Prosecution for 20th Century Fox,[24] but the project has not yet been realized.

Home media[edit]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hollywood Vanity". Variety. November 27, 1957. p. 24.
  2. ^ Durgnat & Simmon 1988, p. 301.
  3. ^ a b Scheuer, Philip K. (July 14, 1957). "A Town Called Hollywood: Outcome of Christie Play Kept Dark Secret for Film". Los Angeles Times. p. E2.
  4. ^ Pryor, Thomas M. (April 27, 1956). "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". The New York Times. p. 22.
  5. ^ Crowe, Cameron (1999). Conversations with Billy Wilder (First ed.). New York: Borzoi Books. p. 171. ISBN 9780375406607.
  6. ^ Parsons, Louella (April 30, 1956). "Wilder to Do Broadway, London Hit". The Washington Post and Times-Herald. p. 32.
  7. ^ Zigelstein 2004. "...this scene alluded playfully to Dietrich’s iconic performances in The Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco."
  8. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". IMDb.com. Internet Movie Database.
  9. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Internet Movie Poster Database. Archived from the original on October 15, 2009. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  10. ^ Zigelstein 2004. "the end credits earnestly entreat the audience not to divulge [the surprise ending] upon leaving the theater."
  11. ^ Osborne, Robert (October 29, 2008). Comments on TCM broadcast. Turner Classic Movies.
  12. ^ Zigelstein 2004.
  13. ^ Schallert, Edwin (December 18, 1957). "'WITNESS FOR PROSECUTION' DYNAMIC COURTROOM FILM". Los Angeles Times. p. B14.
  14. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  15. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution". TV Guide. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
  16. ^ "National Boxoffice Survey". Variety. March 12, 1958. p. 3. Retrieved September 26, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  17. ^ "The 30th Academy Awards | 1958". Oscars.org. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  18. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1949)". BFI.
  19. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution". The Official Andrea King Website. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  20. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1954 Broadway play)". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  21. ^ John J O'Connor (December 3, 1982). "Lively Witness for the Prosecution". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  22. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1982) - Alan Gibson | Cast and Crew". AllMovie.com.
  23. ^ O'Donovan, Gerard (December 27, 2016). "The Witness For the Prosecution, part 2 review: a dark, perfectly contemporary morality tale". The Daily Telegraph. London, UK. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
  24. ^ McNary, Dave (August 19, 2016). "Ben Affleck Directing, Starring in 'Witness for the Prosecution' Remake". Variety. Retrieved August 30, 2016.


  • Durgnat, Raymond; Simmon, Scott (1988). King Vidor, American. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05798-8.
  • Hopkins, Charles (2004). A Foreign Affair, 1948. UCLA Film and Television Archive: 12th Festival of Preservation, July 22-August 21.
  • Zigelstein, Jesse (2004). Witness for the Prosecution, 1957. UCLA Film and Television Archive: 12th Festival of Preservation, July 22-August 21.

External links[edit]