The Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie has had a long and flourishing legacy in the form of screen adaptations of her many novels and stage plays. There have been numerous film and television versions of her work and since her death in 1976 Dame Agatha’s popularity with audiences has grown and grown with new interpretations of her work in constant production.
The film that arguably kicked it all off was Billy Wilder’s 1957 adaptation of her 1953 stage play Witness for the Prosecution which was, in turn, adapted by Dame Agatha from her own 1925 short story Traitor’s Hands. There had been earlier film adaptations of some of Christie’s novels, but Witness for the Prosecution was the first to achieve significant international success, including six Oscar nominations.
The impetus in making the film came from Agatha Christie’s popularity as a crime-writer and playwright hitting its peak in the mid-fifties which made her work particularly attractive to film-makers. After the success of The Mousetrap in 1952, Witness for the Prosecution opened on the stage in London in October 1953 and was a great success. It subsequently opened on Broadway in 1954 and was an even bigger success, gaining Tony awards for both its lead actors before it closed in 1956 after 645 performances.
The rights deals of the time said that film adaptations could only be made after the stage production had closed which is, incidentally, why there has never been a film adaptation of The Mousetrap which has run continuously for over sixty five years. Now a hot property for big screen adaptation, Witness for the Prosecution was snapped up by Wilder who co-wrote the script with Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz.
By any standards, Billy Wilder is one of the most significant Hollywood directors of all time, his filmography including some of the greatest films ever made across a variety of genres. He began his career in the twenties as a screenwriter in his native Austria but, like many of his compatriots, fled from the Nazis to the USA in the thirties. His directing career began in 1942 and within two years he had unleashed upon the public perhaps the greatest noir thriller of all, Double Indemnity.
As adept at comedy as at drama, he had already directed The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and The Seven Year Itch by the time he turned his attention to Mrs Christie’s play. He made some very significant changes to the play’s structure and dramatis personae to make it more entertaining and he engaged a high-octane eclectic cast including Charles Laughton as barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts and ageing matinee idol Tyrone Power as murder suspect Leonard Vole. The witness for the prosecution, Vole’s wife would be played by screen legend Marlene Dietrich in one of her last and most challenging onscreen appearances.
By its very nature, courtroom drama is often static and theatrical and this is no exception; shot almost entirely on sound stages, Wilder attempted to take the drama out of the confines of the courtroom by introducing flashback scenes to flesh out the narrative while also adding new characters, most significantly Sir Wilfred’s attentive nurse, Miss Plimsoll, played by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester. Their onscreen chemistry is remarkable; they had been married for thirty years by this time and, according to Simon Callow, had an intense love-hate relationship which is laid bare on screen.
The principal cast were all approaching the end of their big screen careers; Laughton was considered by Wilder to be the greatest actor of all time and Witness for the Prosecution would bring him his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor just five years before his death in 1962. Power was only forty two at the time of filming but looked older and this would be his last completed film, dying of a massive heart attack the following year while filming Solomon and Sheba.
Marlene Dietrich was the biggest film star in the cast by far but by 1957 the best years of her career were long behind her and she would, shortly after, retire from acting to reinvent herself as a cabaret goddess.
As a film, Witness for the Prosecution is undoubtedly dated and theatrical. Both Dietrich and Power are at least ten years too old to play their respective characters but Dietrich’s incredible screen presence and Laughton’s impressive array of theatrical tricks contribute to keeping the wordy drama watchable. Perhaps over-lavished with praise and awards nominations in respect to other, superior thrillers of the time it nevertheless was responsible for setting the Agatha Christie all-star train in motion, a juggernaut which continues to run today.
After Witness for the Prosecution Wilder turned his attention almost exclusively to comedies. In 1959 he directed one of the greatest of them all, Some Like It Hot, and he spent the sixties and early seventies producing a series of sophisticated bourgeouis features usually starring Jack Lemmon. His final drama, Fedora, opened to limited interest in 1978 and his final film Buddy Buddy in 1981 which he would later disown was an adaptation of a French farce starring, guess who, Jack Lemmon. Billy Wilder died in 2002 at the very respectable age of ninety five.
This release from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series comes with several informative extras: critic Kat Ellinger supplies a feature commentary, actor Simon Callow, a biographer of Charles Laughton, supplies a respectful overview of Laughton’s later life in the short piece Monocles and Cigars, film Scholar Neil Sinyard discusses Witness for the Prosecution in the context of Wilder’s career and there is also an extract from an interview with Wilder by director Volker Schlondorff from the seventies.