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 defence, 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 itself 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 was involved in (and in 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 Prosection 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 the 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!