Agatha Christie is a literary giant, having written many of the most beloved crime stories through her novels and plays. Much of her work has been adapted for other forms of media too, such as television, radio, and even video games. And of course, there have been many film adaptations of her work, and one of the most acclaimed of all is Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution.
Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), an esteemed barrister, has just returned home after recovering from a heart attack. Despite the objection of his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he agrees to represent Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who is accused of murdering a rich, middle-aged widow. Leonard’s alibi depends on the testimony of his calculating wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), and Sir Wilfrid’s task to win the case becomes more difficult when she agrees to appear in court as a witness not for the defense, but for the prosecution.
Based on a play by Agatha Christie, Billy Wilder’s take on Witness for the Prosecution was the first film adaptation of the story. Before Wilder brought it to the screen, the play was adapted by Christie from a short story that was first published in 1925 under the title “Traitor Hands”. It was later published in the United States in 1948 as part of a Christie short story collection called The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. But over time, Christie grew dissatisfied with the ending she wrote for her short story, feeling it was too abrupt. She then rewrote the story as a play, adding in another character and a more satisfying conclusion. The play opened in London in 1953 and opened in New York a year later, and in April 1956 Wilder signed on to direct the film adaptation just two months before its Broadway run ended.
For the film adaptation, Wilder decided to put more emphasis on Sir Wilfrid Robarts than on Leonard Vole, and he included more scenes that didn’t take place in the courtroom as the play had. Other changes made from the play included changing the name of Leonard’s wife from Romaine to Christine and the addition of the character Miss Plimsoll. Wilder and his co-writers also added comic scenes between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse Miss Plimsoll, as played by real-life husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester.
Christie is particularly known for her twist endings in her crime stories, so during film production, Wilder kept the ending a secret from the cast by not giving them the final ten pages of the script until it was time to film those scenes. The secret of the twist reportedly cost Marlene Dietrich an Academy Award nomination, as the film’s producers didn’t want to draw attention to the twist that her character is involved in (and with respect to the film, I won’t delve into the plot either). Though she missed an Oscar nomination, Dietrich did earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama. The film earned five other Golden Globe nominations, winning one for Elsa Lanchester as Best Supporting Actress. Witness for the Prosecution also received six Oscar nominations (though it didn’t win any), including Best Picture, Best Actor for Charles Laughton, Best Supporting Actress for Elsa Lanchester, and Best Director.
At the time of its release, Christie said Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution was the only film adaptation of her work she enjoyed (she later said she also liked the 1974 film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express). In later years, Wilder also stated that “the two things he was proudest of in his career were the compliments he received from James M. Cain about Double Indemnity and from Christie for his handling of her Witness for the Prosecution.”
I haven’t yet read Christie’s play or the original short story, but even with some of the changes Wilder made for the film, it’s obvious he stayed true to Christie’s work while instilling his own style into it, which is certainly no easy task. It’s a wholly engrossing movie filled with fantastic performances, and like any great Christie story, it keeps you guessing all the way through.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the work and life of the queen of crime. Click the banner below to read more terrific posts!
9 thoughts on “Agatha Christie Blogathon: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)”
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I never thought about it before, but you show how good Billy Wilder was at adapting stories to the screen – staying faithful, but also making them cinematic. Maybe because he was first a writer and had respect for the material he was adapting?
This is one of my favorite Wilder films….love how he built up Sir Wilfred and Miss Plimsoll’s characters. Even after knowing the twist, it’s fun to look back and read between the lines of what people are saying and doing!
Thanks so much for joining us in celebrating Agatha Christie!
You make a good point about why he’d be so faithful in his film adaptations since he started out as a screenwriter. I know that before he got into directing there were times that he wasn’t happy with what other directors did with his screenplays, so he must’ve felt the same way when handling other people’s stories.
Thank you for co-hosting the blogathon, now I have a lot more Agatha Christie books and movies to check out!
Great review! This is such a great film and it’s too long since I last watched it. Thanks for the reminder – yet another one to add to the list. This blogathon has been fatal for my to-be-read and to-be-watched lists… 😉
Thank you! And I’m with you, I already had a number of Agatha Christie books on my to-read list, and this blogathon just made that list grow more! Then there are all those movie adaptations too. 🙂
What a cool movie, and man oh man, did that wrap-up ever take me by surprise! Many interesting points throughout your review…and I’d forgotten this was directed by Wilder. I own this one, so I guess it’s time to watch it again!
Even knowing the twist, the movie is still very engrossing upon rewatches! I think it’s easy to forget Wilder directed it because he really let’s Christie’s story shine through… if I didn’t follow the director’s work so closely I’d probably forget he helmed it too.
This film is so good! I haven’t read the play either, and I didn’t know it was a short story that Christie went on to develop into a play. Marlene is fantastic in her performance!
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
“Teeny weeny steps, Sir Wilfred! We mustn’t forget we’ve had a teeny weeny heart attack!”