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and Moments

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)


Written by Tim Dirks

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Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

In co-writer and director Billy Wilder's brilliant film, with crisp dialogue, a complicated and intriguing plot, unique characters and excellent acting performances. It was a convoluted, twisting courtroom drama-mystery adapted from Agatha Christie's classic four-character short story "Traitor's Hands," first printed in 1925 in the British magazine Flynn's, and then published in the 1930s and 1940s in both the UK and US as "The Witness for the Prosecution." It then became a celebrated 1953 stage play and murder mystery (in London and on Broadway):

  • the setting was Britain in 1952, where an aging, distinguished, crafty, near-retirement age London barrister/defense attorney Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) lived with his overbearing housekeeper/nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife) tending to his near-failing health for a weak heart; they often playfully bantered together: (Sir Wilfrid: "If I'd known how much you talked, I'd have never come out of my coma!"); in one early scene, she revealed the forbidden cigars (causing Sir Wilfrid's heart attack) smuggled in his cane
  • the intelligently clever and incorrigible attorney was asked by solicitor Mr. Mayhew (Henry Daniell) to take on a perplexing case, the defense of a prime murder suspect - an unemployed, American expatriate inventor and poor war veteran named Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power in his final film role); the seemingly-guileless Vole was charged with the murder of elderly, childless, 56 year-old lonely, wealthy widow Emily Jane French (Norma Varden); he had allegedly become acquainted with her in order to acquire an inheritance (80,000 pounds) from her recently-changed will a week before her death that made him her will's beneficiary; there was only circumstantial evidence implicating him in the crime, and he had only one alibi for the night of the murder - his wife Christine
  • although it was something not recommended by his doctors who wanted Sir Wilfrid to only take "bland civil suits," he accepted the challenging and intriguing case to take on Leonard's criminal defense after his arrest, believing that there was the possibility that he was innocent
  • Vole confessed to having only one alibi -- the testimony of his enigmatic, glamorous wife/lover Christine Helm/Vole (Marlene Dietrich), an ex-East German beer hall performer/actress in Hamburg (whom he had married after WWII), to defend him; she would claim that she was home when he arrived at 9:26 pm, about the time when Mrs. French was murdered in her home
  • the testimony -- and true identity -- of the mysterious, beautiful German-born 'wife' of the accused, Christine "Helm" Vole, held the key to solving the case involving marital infidelities and deceit; she was Vole's only alibi - but she could not, as the defendant's wife, be considered a very credible witness (as the "wife of the prisoner")
  • after Sir Wilfrid decided to take the case, the dignified, strong-willed Mrs. Christine Vole/Helm made a dramatic entrance in Sir Wilfrid's doorway to speak to him about the case; she could not, however, as the defendant's wife, be considered a credible witness
  • during the trial in the Old Bailey, Sir Wilfrid was shocked when Christine was called to the stand by the prosecution as a "surprise witness" - she said that she could provide evidence against her 'husband' Leonard Vole. She vowed that she had to tell the truth about Leonard's guilt: "I cannot go on lying to save him"
Witness for Prosecution Against Her Husband
Leonard: "It's not true. You know it's not true!"
  • Christine was able to testify against Leonard, because he wasn't actually her legal husband - she had in fact already married a German man named Otto Ludwig Helm in 1942 when she married Leonard in 1945; Christine claimed that she was forced by Leonard to provide a false alibi about his whereabouts and the timing of his return (she claimed he had actually returned at 10:10 pm, although Leonard had pressured her to say that he had returned at 9:26 pm); Leonard had returned home with blood on his cuffs because he said that he had cut his wrist, but he also admitted: "I killed her" -- "It was that woman he had been seeing so often"
  • however, Christine was not even a credible witness for the prosecution; when she was on the stand, Sir Wilfrid accused her of habitually committing perjury for much of her life: "The question is, Frau Helm, were you lying then, are you lying now? Or are you not, in fact, a chronic and habitual liar?"
  • Sir Wilfrid would often use his monocle to extract truth from potential clients by reflecting light blindingly into their eyes
  • soon after, the barrister Sir Wilfrid was called to meet a mysterious Cockney woman who offered, for a fee, to supply him with critical evidence against "that German wife." The woman on the phone said to meet him at the Euston train station in 30 minutes: "If you want the lowdown on that German bag, get yourself here." When they met, the vengeful, scarred, thick Cockney-accented mystery woman offered Sir Wilfrid love letters that Christine had written to a mysterious lover named Max (so she could get rid of Leonard and be with him); the letters suggested that Christine was actually having an affair - again confirming that she was an unreliable witness
  • during the meeting with Sir Wilfrid, she then proposed: "Wanna kiss me, duckie?" - and raised her hairline, to show disfiguring scars on the right side of her face, deep cuts inflicted by Christine's new lover/boyfriend Max who turned against her when Christine stole him away. Now, she was getting her revenge ("cold-blooded vindictiveness") by turning over the letters
  • when the trial resumed, Sir Wilfrid called Christine to the stand and confronted her with the letters recently written to Max (with evidence she was on "intimate terms"), to prove that she had lied
Christine Recalled to the Stand - To Be Proven a Liar
  • one of the damning letters was read outloud for the jury by Sir Wilfrid: "My beloved Max, an extraordinary thing has happened. All our difficulties may soon be solved. Leonard is suspected of murdering the old lady I told you about. His only hope of an alibi depends on me and me alone. Suppose I testify he was not at home with me at the time of the murder, he came home with blood on his sleeves, and that he even admitted to me that he'd killed her? Strange isn't it - he always said that he would never let me leave him. But now, if this succeeds, he will be leaving me because they will take him away forever and I shall be free and yours, my beloved. I count the hours until we are together. Christine."
  • Christine broke down on the stand and admitted: "I wrote the letter." Therefore, she had lied in earlier testimony for the prosecution. Having proven Christine to be a liar and unreliable witness who committed perjury, Leonard was declared 'not guilty' by the jury
  • after the case was closed in the film's startling, surprise courtroom scene ending, Christine admitted to Sir Wilfrid that her strategy as a "witness for the prosecution" had worked. She explained that the only way to absolutely guarantee her husband's acquittal and get her guilty husband off the hook was to become a "witness for the prosecution" - something Sir Wilfrid had advised her to do: "Remember when I came to see you, and you said that no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife, no matter how much she swore her husband was innocent? That gave me the idea...The idea that I should be a witness, not for my husband, but for the prosecution. That I should swear Leonard was guilty and that you should expose me as a vicious liar because only then would they believe Leonard was innocent"
  • then came one of the film's plot twists -- she revealed that she had masqueraded as the Cockney woman by repeating her accent to Sir Wilfrid: "Wanna kiss me, duckie?" Christine said that she was disguised as the Cockney woman who devised the ploy of love letters to get Vole acquitted; she explained to him that her all of her fraudulent letters and lies about Max (who didn't exist) were the only way to have the jury believe that Leonard was innocent
  • but then, in the shocking ending, a second, ultimate twist was revealed - the acquitted Leonard was actually guilty of Emily French's murder; the defendant, who entered and hugged Christine, was gloating about his solid verdict to Sir Wilfrid, and how the 'double jeopardy' ruling protected him: "You got me off and I can't be tried again for this." Obviously, Leonard had indeed murdered the elderly wealthy woman - the suspected charge that was made against him from the very start
  • with his newfound inheritance, Leonard said he would take care of everyone (including paying for Christine's perjury defense) - and then he admitted another major double-cross; he had been unfaithful and was philandering with Diana (Ruta Lee) - and she arrived in the courtroom to run away with him on a cruise: ("I'm his girl!")
  • flabbergasted and shocked, Christine cried out: "Don't, Leonard! Don't leave me!" And then, in furious anger, and in the film's most shocking moment, Christine stabbed Leonard to death in the stomach for his double-crossing philandering with Diana
  • this climactic murder was followed by Sir Wilfrid's classic line when he corrected his nurse Miss Plimsoll about the killing: "Killed him? She executed him." Sir Wilfrid would now serve as Christine's defense lawyer

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton)

Christine Helm/Vole (Marlene Dietrich)

Sir Wilfrid in the Courtroom

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power): Charged With Murder

Phone Call from Cockney Woman to Sir Wilfrid From Train Station

"Wanna kiss me, duckie?"

Sir Wilfrid Reading Christine's Love Letter

Leonard's Relief at 'Not Guilty' Verdict

2nd Time: "Wanna kiss me, duckie?"

Diana (Ruta Lee) and Leonard

Leonard Stabbed to Death


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