Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

“The trial of of Leonard Vole for the murder of Emily French aroused widespread interest. In the first place the prisoner was young and good-looking, then he was accused of a particularly dastardly crime, and there was the further interest of Romaine Heilger, the principal witness for the prosecution…” — Agatha Christie, The Witness for the Prosecution

Tyrone Power’s last full-length appearance on screen (he died while filming Solomon and Sheba a year later), Witness for the Prosecution is also one of his most famous films. Surprisingly, not mainly because of Power—his role in it, though pivotal, is actually quite small—but because of the overall brilliance of the film: the excellent acting, Billy Wilder’s direction, and a very good adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s best-known short stories.

As that paragraph from Ms Christie’s story tells it, the tale is of the trial of Leonard Vole (Power) for the murder of Emily French (Norma Varden). Vole’s solicitor, Mayhew (Henry Daniell) comes with Vole’s case to the crusty old barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton, in what I think is one of his best roles). Robarts is initially reluctant to take on the case—he’s just come home after four months of hospitalisation after a heart attack—but eventually agrees.

The other barrister whom Sir Wilfred takes on to help him with the case is Brogan-Moore (John Williams), and between them they set about unearthing the facts behind the case. And what a case it turns out to be.
For a start, their interview with Leonard Vole sheds some light on the relationship between Vole and the wealthy Emily French.

Vole recounts that he first happened to meet Emily French at a milliner’s: she was inside trying out hats, and he was outside, looking in. When Vole gestured to Ms French to not take a particular hat, but to try another one, Ms French (obviously rather flattered by all the attention she was getting from this handsome stranger) emerged from the shop to thank Vole…

… and met him again accidentally shortly after, when their paths crossed at a cinema theatre. (Aside: the film showing at the cinema is about Jesse James, a character Power had played back in 1939).
According to Vole, a friendship soon developed between him and Emily French. He admits that he hoped she would help him financially: he’s an inventor of sorts (his latest invention being an egg beater that also separates the yolks from the whites) and he needs financing. Ms French, in those flashbacks, seems to be more than a little infatuated with Vole, and Robarts gets the impression that she perhaps had hopes of Vole marrying her, despite the difference in ages.

Vole, in fact, seems to have gone along with keeping up the illusion. He admits that Ms French was labouring under the delusion that Vole’s marriage was an unhappy one.
On the contrary, Vole’s marriage, to a German woman named Christine Helm (not Romaine Heilger, as in Christie’s original story—played here by Marlene Dietrich) appears to be a happy one. Vole recounts to Robarts and Brogan-Moore his first meeting with Christine, in a half-ruined bar-cum-music hall in Hamburg at the end of the war, where Christine used to sing and play the accordion.

Christine herself comes to meet Robarts, and proves to be a disturbing creature: cold, unemotional and not as worried about the predicament her husband finds himself in, as one would expect a devoted wife to be. In the course of their conversation, Christine tells Robarts that Leonard Vole is in fact not her husband: when she ‘married’ him, she already had a husband who was alive and well in East Germany.

Robarts, intrigued (and put off, too) by Christine Helm, warns her that she may not be allowed to give testimony in support of Vole. A wife, naturally, might commit perjury in order to get an acquittal for her husband; so Christine’s testimony may well be inadmissible.
In the meantime, another development has created possible problems for Robarts: Emily French’s will has been read out, and Vole stands to inherit £80,000. Enough reason for murder?

When the trial begins, Christine Helm is not put in the dock by the counsel for the defence. Instead, the prosecution brings in its witnesses. First to come is the very professional Inspector Hearne (Phillip Tonge), according to whose testimony Leonard Vole had been wearing a jacket with bloodstains on the sleeve when he was apprehended for the murder of Emily French—stains which he says had come from a mishap while slicing bread.

While Inspector Hearne is precise, unbiased and knowledgeable, Emily French’s maid Janet MacKenzie (Una O’Connor) is anything but. Janet MacKenzie is unashamedly anti Leonard Vole. She insists that Emily French took his advice on financial matters and had even discussed her will with him (considering that the will originally included a substantial bequest to Janet, this seems like sheer spite on Janet’s part at having lost so much money to Leonard Vole).
Janet also has other bits of evidence—things she heard, things she saw—that seem to point to Vole as the murderer.

Robarts is able to neatly pull down most of Janet MacKenzie’s statements as being driven by malice or peevishness or frustration.
It is, however, the third witness for the prosecution—the witness for the prosecution—turns the trial on its head. Because Christine Helm, proud and cold as ever, steps into the witness box and claims that Leonard Vole was in fact the murderer.

But is Vole really the murderer? And if not, who is?

The American Film Institute’s list of ten greatest courtroom dramas ranked Witness for the Prosecution at number 6. It may well have listed this as one of the best films ever made when it comes to sheer suspense, not just confined to courtroom—because, till the very end, you don’t know who did Emily French in.

Do not miss.

What I liked about this film:

The acting. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton steal the show, she as the cold and calculating Christine Helm, he as the outspoken and extremely capable barrister who seems to be usually a jump ahead of the prosecution. The two of them are superb, of course, but so are most of the rest of the cast, too: especially Una O’Connor as the peevish Janet MacKenzie, and Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, Robarts’s nurse. Miss Plimsoll spends her time trying to persuade Robarts to lie down, to drink his cocoa, to give up cigars, and to go on a vacation. Robarts spends any spare time he can find in defying her in the most innovative ways—but when it comes to the crux, Miss Plimsoll and he do understand each other. A heart-warming little series of interactions on the side.

The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s story. I have to admit to being a purist: I invariably think that stories, whether shorts or novels, are better than their cinematic counterparts. This is one film for which I’ll concede that the film has been very well made. It has been fleshed out, of course (turning a short story into a full-length film would require that, I guess), but it’s been skilfully done, with no clumsily extraneous matter.

What I didn’t like:

Dare I say this on a Tyrone Power special? Power’s American accent. He is supposed to be British (at least, there’s nothing in the film to indicate that he isn’t), but his accent is completely American. Considering that Power was capable of donning a Brit accent—he did so fairly effectively in Lloyds of London—this does seem a bit strange. Could it be that Power was too big a star by now for MGM to cavil about minor things like accents?

And, both Dietrich (at the time 56 years old) and Power (then 43) look too old for their roles. Their acting  more than makes up for it, but still.

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18 thoughts on “Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

  1. One of my FAVORITE films!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I can’t find any fault in this film! Well, I couldn’t discern Power’s accent, cause I saw the movie in German. Marlene Dietrich is supposed to be elder to Power in the movie, isn’t it? Or did I just interpret it that way in my mind?
    I can watch it again and again! The Austrian and German TV Stations show it quite often during Christmas and Easter days adn I never miss it.
    I always have to laugh at the mental image, which is created when Laughton introspects the bermudas.
    GREAT FILM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thanks for the review!

  2. I can see you’re enthusiastic about this one! ;-) And rightly so – what a fabulous film it is. So well scripted, that even when you know what twists are coming, you continue to watch on… amazing film.

    I don’t recall any specific indication that Dietrich’s character was older than her husband, but I tend to interpret it that way too.

  3. I knew I had to watch this when Mr. Steele recommended it, but try as I might, I always land up watching the end on TCM! And since I know the plot and how it ends, I’ve never bothered to watch it. But that was before I was aware of the power of Power! :-) This one goes on my to-watch list, NOW!!!

  4. Do watch! Even though I know the end, I never mind watching this all over again, simply because it’s so well made.

    P.S. Mr Steele recommended this? Now how did I miss that? :-)

  5. He DID! :-) What Mr Steele did not know about classic Hollywood is just not worth knowing! I’ve forgotten which episode, but there is reference to a lift in a house and its compared to Charles Laughton’s lift – ergo, the person with the lift also has a weak heart like Laughton in this film. Its so good to know that life does imitate art sometimes! :D

  6. Amazing film!
    As a great Agatha Christie fan, this is the one film which captures the feeling when I had when reading her novels as a teenager: a complete cast of characters that are very individual and plot twists and the “always” surprise ending- at least for me.

  7. bollyviewer: My goodness, you do have a good memory. I don’t remember a thing of this. But Mr Steele, I really like. :-)

    bawa: Yes, this manages to capture the essence of Agatha Christie very well – and what I liked was that even though the original is a short story and this is a full length film, it’s been so well adapted. Not an easy thing to do.
    By the way, have you seen And Then There Were None? That’s in my to-watch heap too, and I was wondering if it was too early to watch that – after the joy of watching Witness for the Prosecution, would that feel like coming down to earth with a thud?

  8. Hollywood oldies haven’t really been my thing thus far but i love suspenseful ones & some you write about.i’ll definitely check this out, i’ll come back with my thoughts as i usually do, when i see this.

  9. And then there were none! I just don’t dare watch that movie. I love the novel so much, I just don’t want to be disappointed. I’ll wait for your recommendation.
    Who, what, which Steele? I don’t think you mean Remington, do you?

  10. bollywoodeewana (why the new nickname? or did you press Enter before you meant to? ;-)): I guess I like old Hollywood films mainly because when I was growing up, India’s only TV channel – Doordarshan – used to show at least one old Hollywood film a week. Yes, not much considering the vast numbers you can choose from now across who knows how many channels! – but since there was so little to watch, we did see them, and developed a liking for many of them.

    harvey: Yup, Remington Steele. I never missed an episode of that programme, as far as I can remember! But I obviously don’t remember everything about it…

  11. I loved Remington Steele but my memory isnt good enough to remember details like that from twenty years ago! I bought the complete DVD set and have seen the whole series recently. :-) Back in the 90s, I never understood any of his references to classic Hollywood, because I hadn’t seen any of them and hadn’t even heard of a lot of the films he talked about. The recent watch was a whole lot more illuminating. Almost every episode is a take off of some classic Hollywood noir or suspense-thriller and I got some great movie recommendations from him. (Now, of course, I get my movie recommendations from you!)

  12. bollywooddeewana: Yes, bollywooddeewana suits you much more!! :-)
    Thank you for appreciating that header – I use Photoshop for doing headers and other fancy graphic work. Not that I’m very proficient at Photoshop – I can just about manage.

    bollyviewer: Ah, I would like to rewatch Remington Steele; I don’t remember references to old films, but I’m pretty sure that way back then they wouldn’t have made much sense to me anyway. I think I’m going to go look for the DVD set on Amazon…

  13. I’m a big Agatha Christie fan too and I watched this movie twice (on the big screen). I loved Marlene Dietrich’s acting , and I loved the way she said, “Damn you, damn you, damn you” ! (Spoiler here) I think she was superbly made up as the Cockney woman who has Christine’s letters (she’s Helga in the book), I absolutely didn’t recognise her! Incidentally was Tyrone Power in the same “Solomon and Sheba” that ultimately starred Yul Brynner & Gina Lollobrigida ? I liked that movie too.

    • I haven’t seen the Solomon and Sheba you refer to, but yes – Power did play Solomon in a film, and died on the sets, after which he was replaced by Yul Brynner. So it’s probably the same film.

      • It is the same film. At least… Brynner had the script changed fairly drastically when he took over the part. And they had to reshoot pretty much the whole thing after Power’s death, as an insurance condition (they’d only pay out if Power was completely taken out). That said, he is still in some of the long shots.
        Some of the scenes that Power shot before he died are on YouTube.

        It would have been a very different film had Power not died. Probably better, if only because the hearts of the cast weren’t really in it after his death. The masterpiece that King Vidor suggested, probably not, but it’d probably have had more depth, based on the difference in script between the Power scenes on YouTube and the finished film.

        • Thank you for the information. I hadn’t realized the film had changed so much from the original script. I have to admit I haven’t seen it yet, so I should go search it out – and then have a look, too, at the Power scenes on Youtube.

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