Witness For The Prosecution – Billy Wilder
The witness for the prosecution, a surprise witness, is Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich), presumably the wife of the man on trial for murder, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a ne’er-do-well gadget peddler. She claims that she is not legally Leonard’s wife, then refutes his alibi. The next day, however, Leonard’s counsel, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), destroys Christine’s testimony with a small bundle of letters that she had written to her “Beloved Max” in Germany, and consequently wins Leonard’s acquittal. The trial over, Christine tells Sir Wilfrid that she knew Leonard to be guilty all along, that she, disguised, had tricked Sir Wilfrid into taking the phony letters the night before, perjuring herself in order for Leonard to be freed. When Leonard appears with a young, pretty blonde (Ruta Lee) and announces that he plans to go away with her, Christine, enraged, stabs Leonard there in the courtroom, using the knife presented in evidence as the murder weapon. Sir Wilfrid then makes plans to defend Christine against the charge of murder.
The multifaceted trick ending of Agatha Christie’s original play made it highly popular in London’s West End and on Broadway, where it ran for almost two years. Although the play was done as a straight mystery, Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz in their screenplay insert a good deal of humor and emphasis on character, their main addition being Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), Sir Wilfrid’s private nurse, the source of some of the finest comedy in the film. At the time of this film Wilder had earned considerable fame for a group of excellent films noirs that began with Double Indemnity in 1944; and in the 1950’s and early 1960’s he was highly regarded also for his dark comedies such as Stalag 17 (1953) and misanthropic farces such as The Apartment (1960) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Witness for the Prosecution combines the usual Wilder touches—masquerade, verbal wit, intimations of a corrupt environment—but emerges one of his lightest, least trenchant works, without denying in the end the reality of human baseness.
The film’s effect depends upon misleading appearances, things turning out to be not what they originally seemed. The climax follows smoothly from the deceptions, not all of them malicious, that run throughout the various relationships within the story.
The humor in the film derives largely from the attempts of Sir Wilfrid, recovering from a coronary, to outwit Nurse Plimsoll, his “jailer” (he calls her) and the surrogate for his doctor, who has forbidden him a number of amenities, including participation in murder trials. Sir Wilfrid plays the naughty school boy to Miss Plimsoll’s matron. He evades her naps, shots, pills, and, especially, injunctions against cigars and brandy. His antics extend to outright rebellion the night he receives the phone call from the mysterious cockney woman about the letters, as he rushes off -to Euston Station after grabbing Miss Plimsoll’s poised hypodermic and sticking it in the end of his cigar. Her browbeating and smothering attention, however, give way finally to pride and admiration at Leonard’s trial: “Wilfrid the fox—that’s what they call him” she proclaims to everyone in the balcony when Sir Wilfrid confronts Christine with the letters. She is also the one who orders the return of the luggage from the boat train, decisively announcing that Sir Wilfrid will appear for the defense of Christine. He has never really fooled her, anyway, as she makes clear when she reminds him that he has forgotten his brandy (his thermos of “hot cocoa”). Their growing camaraderie furnishes a healthy, innocent contrast to the treachery, both real and feigned, that marks the Voles’s relationship.