Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

This post is part of a great party, the Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, hosted by Dorian TB – Tales of the Easily Distracted & Becky – Classic Becky’s Brain Food, please check out all the other great entries in this blogathon! 

Never thought I’d have reason to say this, but, thank you Marlene Dietrich!

If not for her desire to play Christine Helm/Vole in this movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s story-turned-play, which was key in securing the involvement of director Billy Wilder, we might never have had this, one of the most perfect mysteries and courtroom dramas ever made. If watching a movie is like going on a trip, Wilder is one of those drivers that instantly make you feel safe, steering with such a sure hand at the wheel that all it takes is a moment to realize you can just sit back and enjoy. But where to begin to describe the trip you’re taken on in Witness? Here’s just a rough map: Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) aging and ailing barrister, is basically forbidden to take any more stressful cases, but those are the kind he lives for, and as fate would have it, that one last big case walks right in his door the day he returns from hospital. A nonchalant, if not entirely oblivious gentleman (Tyrone Power) is just about to be accused of murdering a widow. She rewrote her will in his favor, then was murdered, on a night Power was reportedly seen arguing with her, and has a shaky alibi. Since his wife’s (Marlene Dietrich) testimony for her own husband is inadmissible, it’s a surprise when she appears as witness for the prosecution, and her testimony effectively destroys her husband. If he even is her husband. Then a new person comes forward with some interesting evidence. And there I hit the brakes: I won’t dare spoil any more, not only because it’s a personal commandment I have when writing on movies, but also because if ANY movie called for secrecy to protect the first time viewer, this is the mother of them all. That’s the journey, but a map tells you nothing about the scenery, so I’ll point out a few attractions and sights along the way.

Wilder started out as a writer and always remained a storyteller’s filmmaker. So who better (possibly better even than Hitchcock) to adapt a work by the Queen of intricately woven tapestries, Agatha Christie? Hers are puzzles I enjoy better on screen but whose structures and details present special challenges to filmmakers—can’t keep everything, but cut out or stress the wrong bits or characters and all the fun or worse, the life goes out of the story. Wilder not only picked the right bits to film, but went a step further, adding his own vital elements to improve the story and give meaty parts to his actors. Each character in the movie is introduced by efficient, unobtrusive writing, then carried out by grade-A acting in some brilliant little scenes, starting with our introduction to Sir Wilfrid, a role in which Laughton gives one of his best performances. From the car ride with Nurse Plimsoll (played by Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester) to his return to his office, we learn the essentials of his career and personalityand understand he is the movie’s unshakable voice of reality, refreshingly, even brutally honest and unfiltered, a presence and viewpoint that will anchor the plot. In fact Wilder called Sir Wilfrid the “cement block” and cornerstone upon which the film would be constructed. He hates sentimentality and open displays thereof, and if he has a flaw it is that he considers himself a great lawyer. Wilfrid reluctantly refuses the juicy case at first because of his health, but is just looking for a reason to grab it, which he finds in the prospect of a cigar. Another wonderful scene showing his stubborn streak has him cruising up the stairs, the “barrister on the banister,” in his newly-installed chair-lift, while Dietrich shadows him from below, imploring between this rail, then the next, until he disappears to the upper floor. The camera angle follows him upstairs, shifts to follow Lanchester as she scolds and prepares his bed, then catches sight of him again from above as he’s descended, much faster it seems, to go talk to Dietrich. Another great touch is the way Laughton plays with his nitroglycerin tablets, arranging them in rows, only seeming bored and distracted but still intensely focused on the proceedings. It’s a nice way to show not only Wilfrid’s overactive drive to create order, but also the passage of time and stress of the case; by the trial’s third day there’s only one row of pills left.

Back to Nurse Plimsoll, a character Wilder added to the script to give Wilfrid support, a lovably irritating nag, and in the end an understanding companion. She’s bent on preserving his health to the point that he wishes he were still in a coma, since her fussing sucks all the fun out of life. Adding such a character was a stroke of brilliance, for their chemistry was built in and what would Laughton’s role be without this force to play against? Plimsoll gives him motivation, a reason to think fast, work hard and delight with childish glee when he manages to hide his brandy (sorry, I mean cocoa), cigars and ashes (nice bit where he puts them in a drawer and dumps them out the window. No doubt on some unsuspecting sap below). Laughton is in all scenes a delight, the undisputable highlight in a film with many of them.

he’s watching you. and your hat.

The two “stars” of the movie– Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich also did fine work, appropriate and believable (in Dietrich’s case simply stunning) in what I see as very complicated and demanding roles. Power’s character Leonard Vole is a shallow playboy of little substance but loads of confidence, a man who wants to be and seem more, but isn’t really, and who ends up broken down, weary, desperate and in shock, but isn’t really, and that’s a tricky bit of acting to pull off. He first enters Laughton’s office with a swagger and a nonchalance unbefitting a murder suspect, especially one just the second before described by his lawyer as a “ghastly mess.” He takes nothing seriously, for he’s an entirely unserious fellow, a tinkerer, a noncommittal egg-beater inventing dabbler who’s managed to coast on his charm and likability, and his hypnotic effect on women. Power had no trouble playing a charmer, but was capable of disturbingly dark, slimy, ruthless and sinister undercurrents as needed. He soon reveals himself as a player, through that flashback about meeting the murdered Mrs. French (Norma Varden) at the hat shop, which gives us the great line, “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.” Power admits with no shame or hesitation, and with some amusement, how he lied about that ridiculous hat being flattering on her. Now you wonder, why does he get involved with an older woman through a store window like that? Either he’s lying and really was targeting her, or, if we are to believe the flashback as truth, then he likes to toy with strangers, and couldn’t resist an encounter that was both convenient and reinforced his ego. At best, he’s vain, opaque and slightly predatory, and at worst?

Dietrich’s entrance is another swift piece of storytelling. In no time, she tells you she’s tough as nails, unsentimental but almost obsessed with appearances. It’s the same at the very end, when she seems more disturbed over the ladder in her nylons and attends to her lipstick when told she’s likely to serve jail time for perjury. But take note, just like Power’s intro, she’s not as described, and we are not to trust everything we see or hear from characters who claim to know each other well. Dietrich’s one of those actresses you could definitely call an acquired taste (she is to me anyhow) but her work here, which should’ve slayed any doubters, paradoxically went “unawarded,” possibly even disbelieved, because it depends so much on a discovery folded into that don’t-you-dare-spoil ending. Dietrich’s acting talent was an unusual instrument, meant to be carefully wielded and always with the dangerous possibility of overuse, but here she gives an intelligent and careful performance, one fraught with many possible pitfalls but one where she made all the right choices. Even when it looks like she overdid it with the escalating “Damn you’s” she hisses at Laughton in court when her letters are exposed, remember, everyone’s acting and overacting has a purpose. Dietrich manages to be both direct and elusive, stiff and intense. She brings that cold blooded, calculating, haughty quality that was already part of her screen persona, but adds to it an uncharacteristic, almost embarrassing but wholly convincing clinginess, fragility and even some hysteria. There’s a look back at how she met Power –again, you have to take the truth of these flashbacks with a grain of salt once you discover how untruthful these characters can be, and this one has an added layer of fantasy since it practically recreates scenes from Wilder and Dietrich’s earlier film A Foreign Affair. As with Power, flashback is character revelation and Dietrich reveals herself as a perceptive maneuverer; she sees Power’s a user and lets herself be used so she can use him in return.

always concerned about appearances

I know much is made of one certain bit of acting you’re forbidden to reveal, but to me there’s an even better one, a moment I love and rewound a lot while writing this, and one that’s safe to talk about. It’s Dietrich’s brief pause before we get our first reveal, that scene where she stops for a moment to relish her own genius and the effect of the bomb she’s about to drop, the first in what will turn out to be many in the closing minutes of the movie. She prepares Laughton by telling him the “great Sir Wilfrid” can be wrong about something, that possibly someone out there is smart enough to trick even him, then she pauses and assesses him. Her face, her demeanor completely changes in a millisecond as her ego takes over, and with a knowing, mocking grin she proceeds to tell Laughton what she did, lunging at him to drive the point home. For a woman who has seemed so disciplined and tightly controlled, she becomes pure self-satisfied pride and gloating. That is the moment that very, very few actresses would have been able to pull off. Wilder reportedly thought Rita Hayworth wasn’t capable, and another actress considered, Ava Gardner, might have come closer, but Dietrich seems uniquely suited, practically made to deliver a compressed, distilled, packed little bit of intimidating acting like that and seamlessly weaving it into her whole performance.

eat your heart out Jolie

Not to take away from Wilder’s genius, but this is about Hitchcockian movies so let’s compare: there’s the general similarity of a captivating story revolving around a murder, the presence of briefly drawn but compelling memorable characters, that morbid humor and matter of fact discussion of death and the messy details of killing. You can almost directly compare and contrast to Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a courtroom drama made a decade earlier, rife with marital problems and affairs, which even had Laughton in a similar role (a judge in Paradine—he stole that movie too). Hitchcock fan that I am, I find everything about Witness more involving and entertaining than Paradine. Beyond those easy comparisons, there are many little scenes and touches reminiscent of the type Hitchcock used to lighten, darken and humanize his thrillers, like the way the courtroom reacts to Dietrich’s being called as witness for the prosecution, the way her name is called out and echoes through the room, the way the jury turns their heads in unison to look at her. Laughton’s visit to Power in prison and Mrs. French’s trophy packed home, go heavy on the atmosphere, and also break up the Hitchcockian (but really more owing to the Christie source & play) one-room sets where the majority of the movie takes place, either Laughton’s office or the Old Bailey. According to the article by Rob Nixon and Deborah Looney at TCM, the real Old Bailey was off limits to film crews or even to photographs, so designer Alexandre Trauner used sketches to reconstruct it on the Goldwyn lot at considerable cost, but to great effect (the cost was made up by the film’s big box office haul).


One of the best details is Laughton’s monocle and its glint. That little peering device isn’t just something through which Laughton examines; it’s his little prop, his way of relating to the people and the truth around him, or lack thereof. From the first time he spies Power though the monocle the action suggests skepticism, misgivings and suspicions about something being off. When Laughton senses Power might be less than truthful or the type to wilt under scrutiny, he uses the monocle to direct a blinding glint at Power’s forehead and eye, making him squint and shift in his seat. When Laughton gives Dietrich the same treatment, she only briefly dodges the glint before outsmarting him and cutting off the light by pulling down the office shade. When the prosecution calls Dietrich as a witness, Laughton flicks the monocle out to show his clear view and understanding of things has been disturbed. In the closing moments when there seems no end to the twists upon twists and turns, the monocle is entirely detached as Laughton holds it twisting and spinning in the air, looking at it like a friend that let him down.

That elaborate cascade of climactic surprises is what probably most reminds viewers of Hitchcock, that upending of everything you thought you knew, of what the characters thought they knew about each other, their loyalties, their motives and their own cleverness. Witness is so well paced, a slow laying of a firm foundation upon which an intricate tower goes up incredibly quickly and is brought down with a crash. So much activity goes on in those last few minutes, but surprisingly there is neither overkill nor disbelief; it all makes sense. It’s not only the quantity and creativity of those twists that’s impressive, but their handling and arrangement. Hitchcock policy: if you are shown a gun early in a movie, you better eventually see it fired. In Witness, so many details of plot and character substance must come before the twisty ending to make it even remotely acceptable, foreshadowing from flashbacks and throwaway moments, all culminating in the slap-your-hand-to-your-forehead obviousness of outcomes. Only the sure hand and fine touch of a Hitchcock or Wilder caliber director can guide actors and resources toward preparing the audience so well, and make such a puzzle-plot not only possible but beautiful.


While those are more technical matters of inclusion of facts and clues, it’s the order of the reveals, the creation of suspense where we might have seen Hitch do it differently than Wilder. Hitchcock theory: if the viewer knows there’s a bomb in the box on the bus near the boy, then there is expectation and suspense, and a thrill greater than if the bomb just goes off and there is sudden surprise. In Witness, Wilder went for total shock and surprise (even though he shot a key scene both ways before deciding) leaving all the surprises for the end. If we were fed some of them earlier on, would the fun have been sucked away or the story hard to follow? In courtroom settings don’t we accept, even expect some big piece of evidence or a surprise witness? Wilder made the right call (like he needed my approval), and substituted different kinds of suspense by raising suspicion around the characters’ motives and concerns over Laughton’s health. The final act sets it all in order; no amount of game playing or rigging the system will succeed in the end. Rest assured, as Laughton says, “the scales of justice may tip one way or another but ultimately they balance out.”

for those interested, you can highlight the invisible text between these brackets to learn the secret of the movie: [ ………come now,  is that really desirable?……………………………………………..]


39 thoughts on “Witness for the Prosecution (1957)”

  1. That’s one hell of a good analysis of the movie Kristina. Bravo!

    I wouldn’t call this one of my favourite Wilder movies as I just don’t feel there’s enough of the director’s own vision in there – some yes, but it’s overall a lighter, fluffier and somehow less personal concoction than usual. However, I always maintain that there’s no such thing as a bad Billy Wilder film, and this is tremendous fun – arguably the best adaptation of Christie’s work.

    I think I have more time for Dietrich than you – you may be right in calling her an acquired taste. For me, she always had that kind of veiled ambiguity about her which, combined with her languid sexuality, just draws you in. A genuine movie star. As for Power, I usually like him but there’s something about his performance (especially when we get to court) that just doesn’t quite work.

    1. Colin thanks so much, I really appreciate it! yes Dietrich is perfect here, for me near impossible to imagine anyone else doing it as well– she had such a sense of what was right for her especially as she got older. Courtroom Power had a strange balancing act of having to appear melodramatic (to describe it vaguely enough, ha) so I can understand why it works for some or doesn’t. I like him best when he’s his true self in the movie–that really works and he’s totally convincing. Food for thought, how interesting Errol Flynn would’ve been in this part. thanks again so much for stopping to read and for the kind words!!

  2. Kristina, I absolutely LOVE your WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (WftP) post! You had me at “Never thought I’d have reason to say this, but, thank you, Marlene Dietrich!” 🙂 It’s a great movie to begin with, but I’m especially wowed with your handling of the movie’s rich details (including psychological ones) and your cleverness in describing the characters and the plot’s twists and turns without giving away the film’s stunning, sockaroonie secrets! I believe I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but WftP is one of Team Bartilucci’s very favorite movies of all time; hubby Vinnie and I can practically recite the script by heart. Indeed, that’s where we got the name for our general blog, IS THAT REALLY DESIRABLE? (Not to be confused with our classic movie blog and current sponsor and co-Blogathon host, TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED! ;-))

    You really captured the feeling of the performances under the great Billy Wilder’s direction. I got a kick out of your apt and clever turns of phrase, such as “non-committal egg-beater-inventing dabbler,” as well as Sir Charles Laughton looking at his usually trusty monocle “like a friend that let him down.” I could blather about WftP for ages, but I’d be in danger of spilling the beans, so I’ll simply say that everyone in the cast should’ve gotten Oscar nominations, not just the richly-deserving nominees, awesome hubby-and-wife team Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, It’s too bad that keeping the film’s secret meant the deserving Dietrich wuz robbed, Oscar-nomination-wise (I can say no more to anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film). In any case, Kristina, that sound you hear in the background is me wildly applauding you for a truly stellar blog post! Your review is definitely “something to dream about!” Thanks for contributing such a great blog post to our Blogathon, my friend!

    1. Dorian thanks for the nice compliments AND for the invite to this blogathon! my first such post (another coming up) and so much fun to write about that I hardly knew when to stop and needed some large power tools to cut it back down to size, not to mention some pretzel moves not to spoil for anyone. As Colin noted, it’s primarily a fun movie, so I treated it that way & hope I did it justice as well. so glad you enjoyed.
      the only thing missing is a cool GIF!!! the one of dietrich coming at laughton in that scene i love hint hint

  3. It’s all about the British style sense of humour at the base of the storytelling. Hitch was steeped in it. Wilder was another funny fellow who could convey the proper attitude in the film giving “Witness for the Prosecution” its “Hitchcock” flavour.

    I shared “Witness for the Prosecution” with my daughter while she was still in high school. I really enjoyed her reaction to the reveal/finale when she leaped from the chair and shouted “That was freaking awesome!”. It was almost like seeing it again for the first time.

    1. Haha, that’s great about your daughter’s reaction, so fun to watch a movie like this with fresh viewers. The British style/ humour is so evident here, really puts their mysteries a notch above, nobody does them quite so well. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Excellent Kristina. I never considered this a favorite Wilder film of mine, still it is one that is always pleasure to watch. Your superb descriptive insight will only make the next viewing that much more so. I love your details on how Hitch and Wilder would handle the material. Great stuff!

    1. Thanks so much, high praise indeed and love to know you could take something “new” from here to your next viewing of the movie! Best!

  5. I wasn’t a fan of this the first time I saw this, as I feel the same way about Agatha Christie as you do about Marlene Dietrich. Still not a big fan, but I must say, of all the Christie adaptations I’ve seen, this film holds up the best. Never been much of a Tyrone Power fan either, but this is his best work by far, and I think Laughton and Dietrich are terrific. And the second time I saw this, I was better able to appreciate the humor Wilder added, especially through, as you astutely point out, the byplay between Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Very nice write-up.

    1. Thanks Sean for the compliments and thoughts– fascinating in my reading & now just in these comments, how people can love / not like certain and totally different parts of the movie yet still really enjoy it as a whole because it just works & is so entertaining. Best!

  6. Terrific post! Marlene really does a great job here. I think one really Hitchcockian moment in the film is when Una O’Connor as the nearly deaf maid testifies; she brings that kind of humorous moment that Hitchcock would use during a tense scene. And Norma Varden, who plays the victim here, is another Hitchcock link; she was the party guest nearly strangled by Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.

    1. GOM, Kristina, good points about Norma Varden! She’s one of my favorite character actors, and she gets in hot water in both WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Poor Norma, can’t take her anywhere! 🙂

    2. Yes on both those and you remind me of other similarly great details: the movie Power and Varden are at is Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power. Nice touch, kind of bookends the Foreign Affair reference in the other flashback. Lanchester’s buzzing watch in court. And notice how many camera angles in court, that camera was placed in every possible spot i think. Thanks so much for the visit & the compliments, cheers!

  7. Kristina, your review was a triumph! I especially loved your analysis of the monocle and its glint — superb! (And your revelation of the ending was a hoot!)

    1. haha! I was hoping some brave soul would go try the INVISITEXT! glad you liked that. can’t be without some silliness here can we? thanks so much for the nice words! cheerio

  8. I wonder if Hitchcock wishes he had made this film instead of “The Paradine Case.” Agatha Christie’s story is so good, and Billy Wilder sticks close to it, which is a good thing. But what a cast, and Dietrich is sublime.

    1. thanks for dropping by! this is so great, so many of my favorite bloggers and people who provide my regular reading dropping in to say hi. Yes I hope I haven’t given the impression that I dislike Dietrich, just not one of my top faves — she was perfect for this. find it interesting that Wilder was reluctant to do this yet managed to make it so great. Thanks!

  9. As The Wife has said, we love this film with a ferocity usually reserved for war heroes and teen pop idols. We’ve long been of the opinion that if this had become a series, Sir Wilfrid and Nurse Plimsoll would have ended up married, and no less irascible to each other. Sort of a fat, doddering featherheaded Nick and Nora.

    Lanchester and Laughton sparkle on screen together. Not the only time they shared the screen, but certainly the best.

    1. welcome Mr. Dorian! you guys are in a way indirectly responsible for me even having a blog to speak of so you get a special lifetime booth of honor here and bottomless glasses. No question the way Willie & Plimmie end up in the movie, with her “approval” for his next case, your concept of a series would work for sure; what a kick that wouldve been to watch. which why I said “stars” re: Ty & Marlene, no slight to their status but it’s Laughton & Lanchester who provide the heart & soul absolutely wouldn’t have been the same without them. Thanks so much!

      1. Kristina, I speak for my dear “Mr. Dorian” and myself when I say beaucoup thanks for your kind words! You’re very kind to credit me with the creation of your wonderful SPEAKEASY blog, but I knew that once you started SPEAKEASY, it would be a smashing success, what with your brilliant wordplay, reporting, wit, and charm. I drink a toast to you from my bottomless glass, my friend! Oh, and in case I foolishly neglected to mention it, I got a big kick out of your invisible secret message! 🙂

        1. Little did you know when you suggested i add some pics and do more posts over at my old blog, the monster you’d create! Lol

  10. This is one of the most surprising films I’ve ever watched, and in certain way more surprising than many of Hitch’s. Agatha Christie was an amazing writer and other story of her, Murder in the Orient Express, was adapted to the screen by Sidney Lumet and had some references to Hitchcock’s works.
    Nice to know that Marlene insisted to do this film.

    1. hi & welcome– like I said, Christie for me is the rare case where I like the movies & TV adaptations (when well done ie Miss Marple and the UK TV versions especially) better than the books.So many juicy characters to see actors recreate and so many cool twists, a challenge to recreate properly, since she had a masterful way of planting clues– not easy to recreate visually without being obvious, if I’m describing it properly. Thanks and best!

  11. A terrific and telling analysis of a film I re-watched for the umpteenth time last year. Needless to say, I adore Charles Laughton and Elsa working together – they are perfection.

    While your enthusiasm for Marlene Dietrich is greater than mine – I had no trouble with certain shadowy scenes which were meant to deceive – I still thought, overall, she was good in a thankless role. Or maybe it’s with the camerwork in those scenes that I should be quibbling about. Don’t want to give anything away.

    While the ending is a shocker, it always seemed a bit rushed to me. But again, I’m quibbling.

    Tyrone Power was at that middle-aged verge of losing his beauty (for in truth, as a young man he was beautiful), his face (which was his fortune) just beginning to flesh out in an unflattering way, and so perfectly cast. An aging lothario still positive he can pull off the grand deception. He gives me the creeps.

    A wonderful post. Thanks for taking the time to make it so entertaining and informative.

    1. Thank YOU for adding your insights on a movie that as you mentioned rewards multiple viewings, so much to see and notice everytime. well said about Tyrone & his role too. Thanks for the visit!

  12. Nifty review of one of my favorite movies and about as close to a HItchcock pic as one can get. The addition of Nurse Plimsoll was sheer genius, giving the film that light comic edge that’s present in so many of Hitch’s works. Marlene’s big scene fooled me the first time I saw it, perhaps because I was a wee lad who hadn’t seen many of her movies. But she pulls it off deightfully.

    1. hi! thanks for dropping by and adding your thoughts, there’s a lot of neat stuff about how Wilder & Marlene approached filming and reshot “that” scene with different looks. I didn’t want to go into it for fear of spoiling, but it’s fun to read up on for anyone interested…

    1. oh wow, high praise to say you like my post anywhere near as much as the movie. Thanks for checking out the invisitext; 😉 thanks so much, nice to have you drop by!

  13. What a great choice. Wilder and Hitchcock are my 2 favorites, so it’s fun to see you blend them together. Doesn’t Charles Laughton look a bit like Hitch? maybe he was Sir Alfred’s presence looking over the film?

    1. yes! that definitely crossed my mind, a Hitch-like presence for sure. 2 great directors, one amazing movie, so much fun to watch and rewatch & write about. glad you enjoyed!

  14. I love Dietrich in this film. She was a special lady who did a lot for the troops during WW2.

  15. I consider Witness for The Prosecution one of the three classic essential courtroom dramas along with 12 Angry Men and Inherit The Wind.

    Got to love Charles Laughton in anything especially in Mutiny On The Bounty as the evil Captain Bligh.

    There is a hidden gem where Laughton teams with Maureen O’Hara called This Land Is Mine(43). It basically takes place somewhere in Europe during the German occupation.

    Laughton plays a meek school teacher who goes from coward to hero. He also gives two great speeches at the end of this film. It demonstrates that the following old wise saying is applicable to any time and place, “when good men remain silent, evil thrives.” A must see film!

    1. yes I agree, there’s always something new to enjoy every time you watch WITNESS. Laughton is indeed fantastic in most movies, and in WITNESS you gotta love him with Elsa– a spinoff would’ve been fun to watch!

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