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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 Robarts: We try not to make a habit of it.

A 1933 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 play began its life as a short story titled "Traitor's Hands", first published in 1925; it received its current title as part of the 1933 story collection The Hound of Death. Christie eventually grew dissatisfied with the ending and changed it when she rewrote the story as a play.

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.

A 1982 TV Movie adaptation featured Deborah Kerr as Sir Wilfrid's vigilant nurse, Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfrid, Diana Rigg as Christine Vole, Donald Pleasence as Mr. Myers, Wendy Hiller as Janey Mackenzie and Michael Gough as the judge. 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 (like the play) 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. Both the prosecution and the defense are just doing their jobs and try to win their case through honest methods.
  • 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.) She notes this difficult behavior is exactly why he was discharged from the hospital — they got fed up with it.
  • Asshole Victim: Leonard, the remorseless and heartless murderer is stabbed and killed by Christine after he reveals that he's been using her all this time.
  • Audience Surrogate: Leonard is confused about being brought to Sir Wilfrid's office, since he thought Mayhew was his lawyer already. This gives an opening for Mayhew and Sir Wilfrid to explain to American audiences the difference between a solicitor (who deal with non-criminal legal matters) and barristers (who serve as advocates for clients in court).
  • Bad "Bad Acting": A meta example in this case. Leonard Helm doesn't make much of an impression either in meeting Sir Wilfred or in the trial, besides crying out when his wife incriminates him as a witness. Similarly the woman that meets Sir Wilfred is an incredibly hammy personality, to the point (in the TV movie) of sitcom acting. However despite coming off as very flat characters, these are both fronts put on to sell the scheme to Sir Wilfred, and to the audience.
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Both Leonard and Christine had both fooled Sir Wilfrid for the right verdict, though they both meet hard justice in other ways. Sir Wilfrid is still somber at being duped into freeing a guilty man, though is ultimately encouraged to take up another case, namely Christine's trial for the murder of Leonard.
  • 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.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Christine on the stand: "Damn you! DAAAAMN YOU! DAAAAAAMN YOOOOOOU!" Possibly intentional, as we learn at the end that her entire testimony was a performance, and this "over-acting" could be a part of that.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Did You Actually Believe...?: Leonard reveals he has a girlfriend, gloating having used Christine for his purpose the whole time. Said girlfriend is quite the Smug Snake herself, sneering at Christine how deluded she was, as she is far older than Leonard.
  • 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.
  • Evil Gloating: Christine and Leonard engage in this to Sir Wilfrid after the trial, confident it means nothing now the latter is aquitted. Leonard then reveals his girlfriend, turning his gloating to Christine as he had played her the whole time. This one proves to be a step too far, as Christine snaps and stabs Leonard with the ham knife left over from the case.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Both Christine and Diana were in on Leonard's scheme and had a similar cruel wit as he has. Unlike Leonard however, Christine genuinely loved him, and killed him in a heartbroken rage after he was revealed to be a user. Diana in turn broke down in horrified tears at the sight of his murder, implying her love was genuine too.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Leonard. Even after it's revealed that he's a cold hearted and manipulative murderer he still acts politely and offers Sir Wilfred even more money for getting him off. It's all an act of course and just another way of manipulating the people around him, much like the act he's been putting on for the entire film.
  • Foreshadowing: When Leonard and Christine first meet he notes that the poster outside her bar is misleading as it shows her in her underwear while she is fully clothed in the show itself. This foreshadows that she is not what she seems and her later perjury in court.
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Wilfred is rather rude and snide to his personal staff but there's a reason they're so happy to see him return from the hospital. As time goes on it can be seen he greatly cares and respects his staff and he's very honorable as well, not taking Leonard's case until he thinks that he's innocent.
  • Leg Focus: 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.
  • 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: Although Leonard speaks with Tyrone Powers' native American accent, he uses distinctly British words and turns of phrase in his dialogue and is a veteran of the Royal Air Force rather than the American army. Apart from requiring an explanation on the difference between a barrister and a solicitor, no one suggests that he's not actually British.
  • 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.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: Sir Wilfrid realises he has vindicated a guilty man, which Leonard and Christine gloat he cannot try a second time. However Leonard instantly betrays Christine for another girl afterwards, in turn a heartbroken Christine stab him in a rage in front of authorities, leading to her arrest and both of them to meet their comeuppance.
  • Significant Double Casting:
    • Yep, that's Dietrich selling letters.
    • Defied in the case of "The Other Woman" and Greta, Sir Wilfrid's typist. Although they never appear on stage at the same time, the author's note specifically states not to double-cast them, as “the audience will think it is 'plot'—which, of course, it isn’t.”
  • Smug Snake: Leonard gloats excessively at having played Sir Wilfrid and Christine to serve his ends, and now he has gotten away scot free, complete with a very callous Did You Actually Believe...? to Christine. He never suspected this might push Christine off the deep end however, and he is promptly murdered himself.
  • 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.
  • Uncertain Doom: Leonard is last seen being tended to for his stab wound, though a conversation suggests he is very unlikely to be saved.
  • 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. Of course, the woman in question is not Cockney or even English to begin with... as Christine reveals to Sir Wilfrid after the trial.
  • Worthy Opponent: Mr. Meyers has a good deal of professional respect for Sir Wilfrid.

Alternative Title(s): The Witness For The Prosecution