A year barely passes without an Agatha Christie adaptation hitting the BBC, while they all have their merits they are rarely as enjoyable as Billy Wilder’s version of Witness For the Prosecution. Made in ‘57 and released a year later, it was the first film adaptation based on Christie’s play adapted from her own short story which opened on stage in London during 1953.
The courtroom drama – set mostly in London’s Old Bailey – centres upon Sir Wilfrid Roberts Q.C. (Charles Laughton) who is recovering from a heart attack and vows to avoid (at his Doctor’s behest) criminal cases for the foreseeable. Enter Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who stands accused of murdering a Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), the older rich widow who had become rather attached to the affable and attractive Vole after their perfect meet-cute via the window of a milliners. She even made the eggbeater inventor (yes, really) the main beneficiary of her will. While everything points to Vole as the killer, Sir Wilfrid believes in the accused’s innocence and takes on his case. First on the agenda is speaking to the man’s alibi, his wife Christine (an impressively stoic Marlene Dietrich).
Wilder co-wrote the screenplay, this time with Harry Kurnitz. The director was on a break from a regular collaborator following his acrimonious split with Charles Brackett, and had written only the one screenplay – Love in the Afternoon – with I.A.L. Diamond. Witness For the Prosecution was the last before he and Iz would cement their writing relationship with Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).
What strikes most about this Witness… is the humour. Unsurprising given the acerbic, wry wit which peppers every Wilder screenplay, however, it would all be nothing without the performances which make this film. Power – in his final film before his death – is solid as prime suspect Vole, prone to histrionics but what man potentially facing the death penalty isn’t? Dietrich gives fine Garboesque support as his secretive wife Christine. The star of this particular show, however, is Laughton.
The British veteran actor clearly had a ball with Sir Wilfrid, producing a playful performance; sympathetic and incredibly funny. Given his history of heavy drama and those darker roles, it really is a joy to see especially in his scenes with nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). There is no Plimsoll in the original Christie play\short story, she is the creation of the screenwriters. Although, a safe assumption is that the casting was all Wilder. Choosing Lanchester, given her and Laughton’s working and personal relationship was a genius move and provides more than one deliciously raucous moment between the husband and wife.
Granted, it has been 61 years and few will view this without prior knowledge of the plot and the ending(s) (of which there are several). Despite the imploring voiceover the end credits: “The management of this theatre 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.” It doesn’t hamper the viewing experience of Eureka! Entertainment’s – courtesy of their Masters of Cinema series – lovely package of the film, which is available on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.
The 1080p presentation (with an uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack) contains a number of extras which only enhance the main feature. This includes audio commentary provided by critic and Diabolique Editor-in-Chief Kat Ellinger.
Monocles and Cigars: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton (15:48) – Actor\writer Callow discusses WFTP in relation to Laughton, his performance in the film and his career as both an actor and director of stage and screen. He also briefly touches upon Laughton’s closeted love life and relationship with Elsa Lanchester which in itself was an unconventional and enduring love story. This feature is nowhere near long enough, Callow’s such an interesting interviewee and commanding presence who clearly adores his subject matter.
The Interview with Neil Sinyard (24:32) is slightly longer as the Professor of Film Studies discusses Billy Wilder’s career and collaborators. Sinyard focusses on the “lesser-known” films in the émigré writer-director’s oeuvre, like The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), One, Two, Three (1961) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941), (all highly recommended by this reviewer). He talks specifics and comparisons between the stage play and film versions of WFTP, comedy and character. It’s a must-see for Wilder fans or even if you’re discovering the director for the first time.
Billy Wilder on Witness For the Prosecution (13:40) – This short interview is taken from the three-part 1992 programme, Billy: How Did You Do It? directed by Gisela Grischow and Volka Schlöndorff. It is Schlöndorff in conversation with the charismatic director who was 86 years young at the time of interview.
Within the first two minutes Wilder speaks German, French and English and is interrupted by the telephone in his office. He’s playful and charming, swinging on his chair and interrupting the interviewer (only to correct him, you understand). He only has fond things to say about Dietrich who he worked with twice on A Foreign Affair (1948) and this, praising her intellect, key lighting knowledge and of course “the face”. It’s another welcome extra to the disc but do try and source the original interview in its entirety – all parts are available on the Blu-ray edition of Eureka!’s The Lost Weekend (1945) – you will not regret it.
Also included is a collector’s booklet featuring her essays by film scholar Henry Miller and critic Phillip Kemp, a letter from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder and rare archival imagery (unavailable for review), and of course, there is also the theatrical trailer and a reversible sleeve.
Witness For the Prosecution may well be regarded as a “lesser known” Wilder, however, it is well worth a punt not only for all the reasons mentioned above but its theatrical pacing, Wilder’s expressionistic mise-en-scène and it would be remiss not to mention that monocle trick. It was reportedly praised by Christie as the best adaptation of her work she had seen, and well, if it’s good enough for Agatha…