“The question is whether you were lying then or are you lying now, or whether, in fact, you are a chronic and habitual . . . LIAR!”— Sir Wilfrid to Christine Vole
Witness for the Prosecution is not the usual Agatha Christie mystery. Never introduced as a self-contained mystery like most of the author’s works, it first appeared as part of a short story collection in 1933, was made into a play in 1948 and, finally, adapted for the screen in 1957.
The film’s director and screenwriter, Billy Wilder, incorporated some highly beneficial changes—it might even be said, improvements. The major addition was a nagging nurse (Elsa Lanchester) for Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) who has recently suffered a heart attack, it, too, a Wilder idea. The interplay between the two characters—they open the film leaving the hospital and she has the last line as they leave the courtroom—is, in some ways, the best part of the enterprise.
Witness features another departure from most Christie mysteries, that famous hallmark of the Hercule Poriot series, where the multitude of suspects are assembled at the climax for a dénouement. In Witness, there is only one suspect, the seemingly guileless Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a home-grown inventor at loose ends. Whether he is guilty or not is the “mystery” of the movie, the extent of the suspense—up to a point.
His only alibi is provided by his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a cabaret singer from bombed-out Hamburg he had married after World War II. In her first meeting with Sir Wilfrid, she swears he was home with her when an elderly lady, Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), was murdered.
Leonard’s charm had pretty much seduced the lady when he advised her, just by nods and grimaces through a London shop window, on the purchase of a proper hat. They had become friends, Leonard often stopping by her flat for canasta, Gilbert and Sullivan recordings and stories about her late dentist husband’s adventures in Africa. Showing Vole a witch doctor’s mask, she laughs and says that he always wore it when pulling patients’ teeth, calling himself a “witch dentist.” “Herbert,” she adds, “was so witty.” Vole’s response is apathetic.
Janet (Una O’Connor), Mrs. French’s cook, has a low opinion of Leonard’s invention, a three-beater egg beater that separates the yolk from the white. Still, he is seeking financial help from Mrs. French, which seems to lower the possibility of him being her murderer. Or maybe not.
Even though Sir Wilfrid is warned by his doctor and manservant (Ian Wolfe), and badgered by his nurse Miss Plimsoll, that he must avoid all criminal cases, he takes on Leonard Vole’s—perhaps as a challenge and perhaps, too, because Vole apparently passes the “monocle test.” Putting the eye piece in his right eye, Sir Wilfrid catches the reflection of light and directs it into this suspect’s face, without any suspicious reaction. “Passed with flying colors,” he tells legal friend Mayhew (Henry Daniell). When the same test is applied to Christine, she immediately goes to a window and draws the shade, which may, or may not, reveal something about her veracity.
“I’m certainly surprised,” Sir Wilfrid says at one point in his usual droll manner, “that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.” As further evidence of the humor that shares an equal part with the murder mystery, there is Sir Wilfrid’s response to Vole’s lament about Mrs. French. “So weird,” Vole says, “to think of her now, lying in that living room, murdered.” “I assure you,” Sir Wildrid responds, “she’s been moved by now. To leave her around would be unfeeling, unlawful—and unsanitary.”
Leonard Vole, being an American and untutored in British legal ways, falsely believes he already has on his side two “lawyers,” Mayhew and Sir Wilfrid. Mayhew, however, sets him straight: “I am a solicitor. Sir Wilfrid is a barrister. Only a barrister can actually plead a case in court.”
Because photography is not allowed inside London’s Old Bailey, and because in 1957 much of Hollywood was still filming on sets, an accurate replica of the courtroom was constructed. All the filming, easily done on sets, was restricted to the courtroom, Sir Wilfrid’s townhouse, Vole’s Hamburg flashbacks and one somewhat critical excursion to a cockney pub in London’s East End. Like, say, Separate Tables, also mistaken for a British film, Witness was filmed entirely on Samuel Goldwyn sound stages.
There does appear an exterior view of the actual Old Bailey, with a camera-tilt down from its spire, with Lady Justice, her arms outstretched from her shoulders, and tiers of workmen’s ladders, perhaps a repairing underway of World War II damage.
As for most of the other supporting actors, they were recruited from the British colony in Hollywood. Besides the stars already mentioned, a few other Brits include John Williams, Torin Thatcher, Philip Tonge, Francis Compton, Patrick Aherne (brother of Brian) and Ben Wright.