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Witness for the Prosecution: The Laughton show


‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (1957), a courtroom drama movie with film noir elements, was a successful screen collaboration between director, Billy Wilder and popular mystery writer, Agatha Christie. In fact, it was the first film adaptation of Christie’s story, translated for the screen by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz and Wilder himself.

Christie had written the short story, ‘The Witness for the Prosecution’ in 1925, initially published as ‘Traitor’s Hands’ in the January 31, 1925 edition of ‘Flynn’s’, a weekly pulp magazine. The first adaptation of this story was a BBC television production made in 1949, with a running time of 75 minutes. Christie then turned the story into a play, which opened in London on October 28, 1953 at the Winter Garden Theatre, directed by Wallace Douglas.

The success of the play made the producers Arthur Hornblow Jr and Edward Small purchase the film rights to it for $450,000. The play was then adjusted to build up the character of the defence barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts. Billy Wilder was signed to direct the production in April 1956.

Actor William Holden was the first choice to play Leonard Vole, but he was unavailable. Wilder and Hornblow Jr then went to Tyrone Power, who turned down the part. Other actors considered for the role included Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon and even Roger Moore. Eventually, Power accepted the role when he was offered both ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ and ‘Solomon and Sheba’ (1959), also a United Artists production, for $300,000. However, before he could complete ‘Solomon and Sheba’, Power had a fatal heart attack and was replaced by Yul Brynner.

Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were considered for the role of Christine Vole. However, Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich were leading candidates on the list. According to Wilder, when the producers approached Dietrich about the part, she accepted the offer on the condition that Wilder direct. Wilder said Dietrich liked “to play a murderess” but was “a little bit embarrassed when playing the love scenes.” In fact, Wilder had earlier directed Dietrich in ‘A Foreign Affair’ (1948).

Wilder’s idea of an actor to play Sir Wilfrid was somebody like the film and theatre veteran, Charles Laughton, as he sincerely believed that Laughton had the greatest technical range and power of any actor, man or woman, whom he has known. Fortunately, Laughton was available and agreed to do the role. The fascinated Wilder took the role of the defence lawyer, which had been essentially a supporting role in the play, and turned it into the central performance. It turned out to be the best performance of Laughton’s career.

Actress Elsa Lanchester, who was Laughton’s wife, was cast in the role of Miss Plimsoll, the private nurse for Sir Wilfrid. Lanchester has two purposes in the film, to supply comic relief and broaden Laughton’s role. Husband and wife played beautifully opposite each other, with comic scenes between them added by the screenwriters, which did not exist in the original play.

Interestingly, Laughton taught Dietrich how to speak Cockney for the scene where she impersonates a disfigured Cockney woman. She also spent a great time at Laughton’s house trying on scarves, shawls, and various wigs.

In order to show just one of Dietrich’s famous legs, an entire scene was written by Wilder. It comprised of a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, when she is wearing her trademark trousers. A rowdy customer conveniently rips them down one side, revealing one of Dietrich’s renowned legs, and starting a brawl. The scene required 145 extras, 38 stuntmen and $90,000 expenditure.

Power was paid $150,000 for his work in the film, and Dietrich $100,000. By contrast, Laughton, who stole the picture and got the most critical attention, was paid only $75,000.

The effort to keep the ending a secret extended to the cast. Wilder did not give the actors the final ten pages of the script until it was time to shoot those scenes. And when the climax was being shot, the producers stationed guards at the doors to the soundstages so that no outsider could peep in. The secrecy reportedly cost Dietrich an Academy Award, as United Artists didn’t want to call attention to the fact that Dietrich was practically unrecognisable as the Cockney woman, who hands over the incriminating letters to the defence. At previews too audience members received and were asked to sign cards that read, “I solemnly swear I will not reveal the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.”

When the film was released, it received extremely positive reviews. Produced at a budget of $3 million, it went on to collect $9 million at the Box Office. Although the film garnered five Oscar nominations, including in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor categories, it failed to win any Academy Award.

After watching the film, Agatha Christie said it was the only movie based on one of her stories she had actually liked. Later, after ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) was filmed she said she liked that one too.

In 1982, ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ was remade as a television film, starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller and Diana Rigg. According to the 2016 reports actor/filmmaker, Ben Affleck was in talks with 20th Century Fox to direct and star in a remake of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. Christopher Keyser was supposed to write the script, and Affleck himself produce the film with Matt Damon, Jennifer Todd and the Agatha Christie estate.

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