Film / Witness for the Prosecution

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Leonard Vole: But I've done nothing! This is England! You don't get arrested or convicted for something you haven't done!
Sir Wilfrid: We try not to make a habit of it.

A short story by Agatha Christie, made into a 1953 play, which was then adapted into a 1957 film.

Leonard Stephen Vole, an amiable and good-natured blood donor with an excellent war record, has been charged with murder. The victim: Miss Emily French, a lonely but wealthy widow with whom Leonard had become friendly recently. Unfortunately for Leonard, it is revealed that Miss French had left Leonard eighty thousand pounds, making for quite a motive. Leonard's case rests entirely on circumstantial evidence, and his acquittal relies on the testimony of his cold and calculating German wife, Christine Vole (her first name is Romaine in the short story and play), who is the only person who can provide an alibi. Leonard and his solicitor seek the advice of London's best and most experienced barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who takes Leonard's case himself despite his rapidly deteriorating health.

What follows is a three-day trial, during which time the prosecution makes a convincing case for Leonard's guilt and Sir Wilfrid attempts to prove his innocence. After some time, a surprise witness is called, and twist after twist keeps everyone in the courtroom - and the audience - on the edge of their seats.

The film version was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Tyrone Power as Leonard, Marlene Dietrich as Christine and Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid. Tyrone Power's last film, as he suffered a fatal heart attack on the set of his next production, Solomon And Sheba.

In 2016, a two-part TV adaptation, following the book rather than the play, was broadcast by The BBC, from the creators of the 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None. It starred Toby Jones as John Mayhew.

Incidentally, as this film is over 50 years old, nothing below is spoiler-tagged. If you ever plan to see it, don't read anything further.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Karma: The short story ends with Christine admitting to Leonard's solicitor that she deliberately got caught committing perjury to get Leonard, who she knew was guilty, acquitted. The film continues to show Leonard leaving her for another woman immediately after his acquittal and Christine stabbing him in rage as a consequence.
  • The Adventure Continues: The film ends with Sir Wilfrid declaring that he will be acting as the defense for Christine Vole.
  • Amoral Attorney: Averted. Mr. Meyers, the prosecuting attorney, is actually a very polite and civil man. He's just doing his job.
  • Annoying Patient: Sir Wilfrid, who screams at Mrs. Plimsoll and sabotages her treatment. (Granted, she does get rather twee, but she's also trying to avert another heart attack.)
  • Batman Gambit: Sir Wilfrid tells Christine that while she can't be forced to speak against her husband, the testimony of a loving wife will count for very little in a murder case. So she plays a cold, unfaithful wife who is then discredited by new evidence to "prove" Leonard's innocence.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The ham knife. Sir Wilfrid uses a bluff about it to get Christine to incriminate herself as the letter writer, then Christine uses the knife to stab Leonard.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The emotional young woman sitting behind Mrs. Plimsoll in court is Leonard's lover.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Testifying for the prosecution, Christine claims this as her only motive for marrying Leonard, and that she was already married to a man in Germany. While the marriage did get her to England, she does genuinely love him.
  • Courtroom Antics: Mild compared to some cases, but Sir Wilfrid plays a few tricks during the trial. Leonard also loudly contradicts Christine's testimony from the gallery, for which the judge does threaten to throw him out of court.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Sir Wilfrid.
    • The judge gets in a good one when he's asked by a witness if he could expedite her getting a new hearing aid.
      "With all the rubbish being talked about these days you're not missing much."
  • Death by Woman Scorned: At the end, Christine kills Leonard after he reveals he's having an affair.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: When Sir Wilfrid accuses Mrs. McKenzie of being antagonistic towards Leonard from the start, she denies it—then calls him a shiftless, scheming scoundrel, but she's not "antag'nistic".
  • Do Not Spoil This Ending: When the film was released it ended with a voiceover urging audiences not to reveal the twist ending.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: And how it does.
  • Exact Words: Everything Christine says under oath is true, even when it seems to be self-contradictory or misleading. She really did see Leonard come home at the time she said he did; she really doesn't know anyone named Max, and any letters allegedly written by her to him are forgeries; and she really did write a letter to "Max" which seems to clear Leonard of the murder.
  • Genre Savvy: Sir Wilfrid suspects something is too good to be true about the Deus ex Machina delivery of surprise evidence to him after Christine's testimony, though he doesn't actually solve the puzzle.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Sir Wilfrid only decides to defend Leonard Vole after he's convinced of his innocence.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Nine seconds of pulse taking were sufficient to declare Leonard dead.
  • High-Class Glass: Sir Wilfrid sports one of these, and uses it when interviewing clients.
  • Homemade Inventions: Leonard's combination eggbeater-and-separator. He's having trouble funding it and hoped Mrs. French would give him the financial backing he needed.
  • It Amused Me: Leonard meets Mrs. French by shaking his head and nodding when he sees her trying on hats inside a shop, just for grins. (He thought both hats were ugly.) They only meet again by chance in a theater.
  • I Owe You My Life: How Leonard and Christine's relationship started; their marriage allowed her to escape post-war Germany.
  • Literal Metaphor: When Leonard describes his first meeting with Christine, he says "the roof fell in on me." In the ensuing flashback, he certainly seems smitten from the get-go... and then he accidentally knocks over the chair holding up the ceiling in Christine's apartment, causing the roof to actually fall in on him.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Leonard twists both Christine and Wilfrid around in different ways.
  • Motor Mouth: Miss Plimsoll is capable of carrying on both sides of a conversation by herself and bringing it to a rapid conclusion.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Christine claims this as the reason she testifies against Leonard in court when she backed up his alibi to the police: she might owe him, but she can't perjure herself for a murderer.
    • Sir Wilfrid is incensed when he learns that he's acquitted a thoroughly guilty man.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Despite dialogue that uses distinctly British words and turns of phrase, and nothing in the movie suggesting his character is anything but English (he was in the RAF), Tyrone Power speaks with his native American accent.
  • Not So Stoic: Christine's calm breaks only twice. First is when the letters from Max are revealed and show her testimony against Leonard as a lie, and she shrieks "DAMN YOU!" across the courtroom. But this was an act. The second time is when Leonard callously dumps her for a girl he met shortly before the murder, and it's genuine—she's shattered by the betrayal, and then she murders him.
  • Old Retainer: Mrs. McKenzie was Mrs. French's housekeeper of ten years. She disliked Leonard from the start, and Wilfrid paints her as being biased because she was cut out of Mrs. French's will in favor of Leonard.
  • Quick Nip: Despite being medically forbidden from it, Sir Wilfrid smuggles brandy into his thermos of cocoa (after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to hide cigars in his cane). Miss Plimsoll picks up on it partway through the trial.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Sir Wilfrid uses this to test potential clients for their honesty. Leonard passes, but Christine cuts it short by closing the blinds to stop him reflecting it in her eyes (a failure). In the end, it proves to be an unreliable gauge of their characters.
  • She's Got Legs: American servicemen in the shabby Berlin club where Christine is playing demand to see her legs, and get drunk enough to actually rip her pants off. This scene was written into the movie specifically for some Marlene Dietrich Fanservice.
  • Significant Double Casting: Yep, that's Dietrich selling letters.
  • The Sociopath: Christine poses as one, manipulating two men to do her bidding (marrying her and attacking an ex), lying without any effort, and having no empathy at all for Leonard. But it's Leonard who's the true sociopath. He's an admitted drifter who befriended a lonely widow for amusement, and then let her make him a pet when he learned of her vast wealth, in hopes of funding his Homemade Invention. Shortly thereafter he got her to put him in her will and then murdered her. Up until the end he plays the role of desperate innocent without fault. When Sir Wilfrid expresses his horror and outrage at having acquitted such a scoundrel, Leonard casually brushes it off and offers to cover him in gold. He's similarly guilt-free when he reveals that he's been having an affair for months and intends to leave Christine, even though he relied on her unquestioning love to perjure herself for him. No wonder she stabs him.
  • The Stoic: Christine appears to be unaffected by anything—when she learns of Leonard's arrest, she's so calm that Sir Wilfrid decides he does not want her near the stand at all. And when she's pulled from an angry mob after the trial, her only complaint is that they laddered her last pair of stockings.
  • Surprise Witness: Christine twice over, once when she's unexpectedly called by the prosecution, and once when Sir Wilfrid recalls her.
  • Time Passes Montage: Marked by the number of Sir Wilfrid's pills (taken on the hour) that remain.
  • Title Drop: At the end, when Christine reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she wanted to be a witness for the prosecution, because a supportive wife wouldn't have been believed.
  • Twist Ending: And you thought The Usual Suspects was a Mind Screw.
    • Born In The Theater: A voiceover during the end credits encourages viewers not to Spoil the ending in the name of "the management of this theater."
  • This Cannot Be!: Sir Wilfrid's immediate reaction when Christine reveals that Leonard really did murder Mrs. French.
  • Undying Loyalty: Christine doesn't care that Leonard murdered someone in cold blood; she'll do anything for him because she loves him. When he betrays her, though...
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Christine, for testifying against her husband when he rescued her from postwar Germany. But really, it's Leonard, who ditches Christine for another woman even as she's perjuring herself for him.
  • The Vamp: Christine.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Christine's Cockney disguise. Sir Wilfrid doesn't realize it until Christine gives him an encore after the trial.
  • Wham Line: "No, Sir Wilfrid, you do not understand at all. I knew [Leonard] was guilty."
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: The woman who sells new evidence to Sir Wilfrid is making a truly atrocious attempt at a Cockney accent.
  • Worthy Opponent: Mr. Meyers has a good deal of professional respect for Sir Wilfrid.

The 2016 television adaptation contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Janet Mackenzie (French's maid) is named Janet McIntyre here.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: For John Mayhew in particular. To begin with, he's given a tragic backstory involving the death of his son during the First World War in a gas attack that continues to haunt him throughout the plot. Then, it's taken Up to Eleven by the end where he discovers, in rapid succession, that he has unwittingly helped a murderer get away scot-free, has contributed actively to sending an innocent woman to the gallows, and that his wife doesn't love him and has never forgiven him for coming home from the war while their son didn't. All this ultimately leads to him committing suicide.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • Subverted with Janet McIntyre, who at first appears to be Emily French's killer due to having been in love with her, but is ultimately revealed to be innocent of the crime.
    • Played straight with Romaine, who comes across as a far more manipulative and cruel person than the relatively more sympathetic character she was in previous adaptations.
  • Darker and Edgier: When compared to the 1957 film and the play it is based on, and even arguably the original short story. There are explicit sex scenes, a lot of swearing and a complete lack of Politically Correct History (most notably in the scene where Leonard's senior counsel refers to him as a victim of "the perfidy of women"). Leonard Vole gets away with murder, without the Karmic Death he suffered in previous adaptations. Romaine also comes across as a far more manipulative and cruel person than the relatively more sympathetic character she was in previous adaptations. Emily French's maid is convicted of her murder and hanged. Worse still, the attorney John Mayhew is a man battling his own personal demons involving his son's death in the war, which his wife blames him for, and the miniseries ends with him, overwhelmed by both his depressing personal situation and the knowledge that he has helped a murderer get away and helped send an innocent woman to the gallows, killing himself by walking into the sea.
  • Death by Adaptation: Janet McIntyre and John Mayhew.
  • Downer Ending: This adaptation ends on an even more cynical note than Christie's original short story - Leonard Vole gets away with murder, inherits Emily French's wealth, and lives a life of luxury abroad with Romaine (though it is very subtly implied that being the manipulative bitch that she is, she might someday decide to do away with him as well); Ms. McIntyre, Emily French's maid, is convicted of the murder, seemingly driven insane though the court proceedings and eventually hanged; John Mayhew eventually discovers his own unwitting culpability in causing these miscarriages of justice to happen and is naturally devastated but worse still, when he tries to take some solace in the fact that he did what he did to provide for his wife, she admits to him that she simply cannot reciprocate his love because she has never forgiven him for the death of their son during the war - leading Mayhew to kill himself by walking into the ocean. Really, it's a bleak ending for pretty much every character in the story, except perhaps Romaine, who's possibly the most evil of the lot!
  • Named by the Adaptation: Mr. Mayhew (the attorney) is named John Mayhew here.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Subverted with Janet McIntyre (see Adaptational Villainy above).
  • Suicide by Sea: The miniseries ends with John Mayhew drowning himself in the sea at the end after hitting the Despair Event Horizon, when his wife reveals she no longer loves him, and he learns that the man he helped liberate was in fact guilty of the crime he was accused of.
  • Truer to the Text: To a significant extent, being based on the original Christie short story as opposed to the 1957 film, which was based on the play. This adaptation, most notably, retains the original ending - Leonard Vole gets away with murder, inherits Emily French's money, and is free to live a life of luxury with Romaine. Also, the character names are identical or close to what they were in the original story, as opposed to the film. This adaptation is also set in the 1920's, the period when the original story was published, as opposed to the film which had a Setting Update to the 1950's.
  • Wham Shot: The reveal of Leonard's new wife: it's Romaine.

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