Billy Wilder (director)
10 September 2018 (released)
19 September 2018
Beyond any shadow of a doubt WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is easily Agatha 'The Queen of Crime' Christie's best play – her others simply pale into insignificance. This is Christie at her absolute best. Anthony Shaffer wanted to put her in the shade with his brilliant SLEUTH and he very nearly did, but one cannot imagine even the ingenious Mr. Shaffer not giving some begrudging acknowledgement here! Forget the forever running MOUSETRAP or 10 LITTLE WHATEVER’S. Billy Wilder’s 1957 adaptation really is an absolutely stupendous screen version of her play. Christie herself even went so far as to write director Wilder a congratulatory letter.
The action begins, after a few London pick-up shots, in top barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) chambers in the Inns of Court (he actually lives there too, lucky him). Sir Wilfred by the way has just returned to Chambers after a lengthy spell in hospital following a heart attack and is being cared for by his ever faithful nurse Miss Plimsoll (Laughton's real life wife Elsa Lanchester - probably best known from 22 years before as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) with whom he is forever remonstrating. Like all good hail and hearty men, Sir Wilfrid loves a glass of brandy and a good cigar (these he keeps hidden in his walking stick but the canny old Plimsoll soon wises up to his shenanigans). As a result of his heart attack he's been told he can only handle mundane cases like divorces but things are about to change… Enter Solicitor Mayhew (the serpent-like Henry Daniell) with his client Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power, in his last role) pleading with Sir Wilfrid to take on Vole's case. It is a case, yes you guessed it, of murder!
Sir Wilfrid is hesitant to take on the case until he notices that Mayhew has three cigars in waistcoat pocket; Plimsoll has already confiscated his own. This of course changes everything! Ushering them into his office (keeping the nurse out in the process) he hears Leonard Vole's seemingly sad story. Vole appears a terribly likeable and somewhat naive man. He informs Wilfrid that he had recently made the acquaintance of an older woman, the wealthy but lonely widow Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden) after helping her to buy a hat in an Oxford Street shop. A short while later, Vole found himself, quite by chance, sitting behind ‘the hat’ in a cinema –obstructing his view. Recognizing the owner of the hat the two got to talking and a friendship was struck. The woman in question lived with her housemaid Janet (Una O'Connor, another refugee from THE BRIDE OF…) and there was no man in her life. Was it altogether surprising that this elderly lady should become smitten with the rather charming and good looking - but virtually penniless Mr. Vole? Although he informs Sir Wilfrid that he was unaware of her infatuation. Unfortunately the lady in question has been discovered murdered by her housemaid and there is but one suspect fitting the bill only too well! Yes, Vole himself for he had the means, the motive and ample opportunity. Vole, however, does not appear to have any comprehension of the grave situation he is in. It should also be mentioned that Mrs. French left him all her money in her will and 80 grand in 1952 was a fair bit. As Mayhew rightly says the police will be arriving at any minute to arrest him but not before Sir Wilfrid has subjected the accused man to his 'flashing monocle test' which Vole passes with flying colors. Sir Wilfrid then agrees to take the case.
The odds against Vole take a turn for the worse when his initially unsympathetic wife Christine, a former German actress (Marlene Dietrich, no less), arrives at the office. Sir Wilfrid’s junior counsel Mr. Brogan-Moore (John Williams) informs him: “We can't possibly put her in the witness box, the prosecution will tear her to shreds!” Now it would be unfair to tell you anymore except do yourself a favour and AND don't look it up on Wiki but rest assured, this is one hell of a corker court case with a twist that even Sir Wilfrid didn’t see coming! Yes, things appear to be going rather well for Sir Wilfrid when a surprise ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ arrives and puts a very big spanner in the works. But it's only just the beginning and there will be many more twists and turns before we reach Agatha Christie’s best ever surprise denouement.
A great and witty screenplay from Harry Kurnitz, Larry Marcus and Wilder only enhances Dame Agatha's play. Wilder's prowess as a director was never in any doubt. We also have an absolutely terrific cast: Laughton was one of the great's and it would be hard to better his Sir Wilfred - as usual, Laughton gives it his all. Top billed Tyrone Power (perhaps, slightly old for the part) is, nevertheless, a solid and believable Leonard Vole. What can we say about Marlene as 'loving' wife Christine Helm (among other things she even treats us to a musical impression of top German actor Hans Albers). There was only one Dietrich and if you don’t like her then hard luck! As for being ably supported, what? Elsa Lanchester always gave us a clever performance and it’s no different here, Una O'Connor too was never short of marvelous and Torin Thatcher does his best as Crown prosecutor Mr. Myers but Laughton knew all the tricks. The film received a staggering 14 nominations for various awards and won a further five awards!
Among the Bonus Material we have archival footage, audio commentary, interview, collector’s booklet, ‘Monocles and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton’, as well as a reversible sleeve.