“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.