Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution
Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton

N.B. This article does not divulge the film's brilliant ending - It's too good to spoil.

'Witness for the Prosecution' is a classic courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder in 1957, with an all star cast headed by Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. The movie was based on a stage play by Agatha Christie originally performed in London in 1953.

The film performed well commercially and received extremely favorable critical reviews. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Billy Wilder, Best Actor for Charles Laughton and Best Supporting Actress for Elsa Lanchester.


Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power, is accused of murdering a rich older lady who has made him the beneficiary of her will. He manages to engage the services of distinguished barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts, played by Charles Laughton, who believes Vole to be innocent, despite strong circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Vole's German wife, Christine, played by Marlene Dietrich, holds the key to his fate as she can provide his alibi. When she surprisingly becomes a witness for the prosecution's case, it is the cue for a series of intriguing plot twists and a surprise ending.


The movie was adapted from Agatha Christie's highly successful stage play also called 'Witness for the Prosecution', which , in turn, was based on her short story 'Traitor's Hands.' The story was originally published in 1925 in the British magazine, 'Flynn's' and reprinted several times throughout the 1930's and 1940's in both Britain and America. The play opened in London in October, 1953 and on Broadway 2 months later, ending its run at the end of June, 1956.

There are numerous differences between the play and the film. Much of the humour in the film comes from the interplay between Robarts and Miss Plimsoll whereas the character of Robarts' nurse does not appear in the stage play. The play was also changed to increase the importance of the role of the defence barrister. The ending of the play was also significantly altered.

The film rights to Agatha Christie's play were purchased by producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small for $450,000 Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956. Initially reluctant, Wilder was persuaded to take the project on by his old friend, Marlene Dietrich. The director managed to make the play more interesting for the large screen by using fluid camera movements and by playing up the love/hate relationship between Robarts and his nurse.

The German nightclub scene where Vole meets Christine, Dietrich's trousers are ripped by a drunken customer, gives a convenient opportunity to show her famous legs. The crowd fight which ensues cost $90,000 and required 145 extras and 38 stuntmen.

Surprise Ending

Because the ending contains such a dramatic "twist", various precautions were taken to prevent it becoming too well known. The early printed editions of the play did not include the ending at all and as the credits roll at the end of the movie, a voiceover requests the audience not to divulge the ending to their friends. Even the cast themselves did not know how the film ended until the very end of the shoot when they eventually received the last pages of script.


William Holden was Wilder's first choice for Leonard, after their famous collaboration in 'The Lost Weekend' in 1945, but as Holden was unavailable several other actors were considered including Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon . Tyrone Power initially turned down the part, .but was persuaded when he was offered the incentive of a leading role in 'Solomon and Sheba' in addition to 'Witness for the Prosecution'. Tragically, 'Witness for the Prosecution' became his last completed movie as, in 1958, he died of a heart attack on the set of 'Solomon and Sheba'.

In addition to Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh was also under consideration for the role of Christine Vole.

'Witness for the Prosecution' also marked the last appearance together of husband and wife actors, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and also the final film appearance of brilliant character actress Una O'Connor who was the only performer to reprise her role from the Broadway production of the play.


Main Cast

Tyrone Power ... Leonard Vole
Marlene Dietrich ... Christine Vole
Charles Laughton ... Sir Wilfrid Roberts
Elsa Lanchester ... Miss Plimsoll
John Williams ... Brogan-Moore
Henry Daniell ... Mayhew
Ian Wolfe ... Carter
Torin Thatcher ... Mr. Myers
Norma Varden ... Mrs. Emily Jane French
Una O'Connor ... Janet MacKenzie
Francis Compton ... Judge
Philip Tonge ... Inspector Hearne
Ruta Lee ... Diana


Director … Billy Wilder
Producer … Arthur Hornblow, Jr., and Edward Small
Screenplay … Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus
Based on … the play of the same name by Agatha Christie.
Cinematography … Russell Harlan
Music … Matty Malneck
Distribution Company ... United Artists
Format ... B & W
Release Date ...December 17, 1957
Running Time ... 116 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Six Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Edward Small Productions
Best Director ... Billy Wilder
Best Actor ... Charles Laughton
Best Supporting Actress ... Elsa Lanchester
Best Film Editing ... Daniel Mandell
Best Sound ... Gordon E Sawyer