QUOTE OF THE DAY: Witness For The Prosecution

Marlene Dietrich

 

 

  • It’s 30 minutes into Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) and Marlene Dietrich makes her entrance with a line of dialogue which any actress would have been thrilled to deliver.

Marlene is Christine Vole,wife of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who is accused of murdering  Mrs French (Norma  Varden).
Charles Laughton is Vole’s defence barrister,Sir Wilfrid Robarts  who, in preparing for his first meeting with Mrs. Vole, tells his junior counsel Brogan -Moore (John Williams):

Handle her gently, especially when you  break the news of the arrest. Bear in mind she’s a foreigner, so be prepared for hysterics or even a fainting spell.

Better have smelling salts ready or even a box  of tissues and a nip of brandy.”

 

Unknown to both lawyers, Mrs. Vole has been standing just outside the room they are in and has overheard Sir Wilfrid’s comments.

She strides in as Sir  Wilfrid finishes and takes both of them by surprise by saying cooly and unemotionally:

“I don’t think that will be necessary – I never faint because I’m not sure I will fall gracefully, and I never use smelling salts because they puff up my eyes.

I am Christine Vole.”

The murder plot of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is pure Agatha Christie ,but lines like that are pure Wilder ( and co-adaptor of Christie’s  stage play, Harry Kurnitz).)

This courtroom drama is not the kind of movie we expect from Billy Wilder. In fact Wilder chose to do it after his friend Marlene Dietrich asked him. He was also influenced by the chance of working with Charles Laughton.

in an interview, Wilder said,  Marlene gave it to me and said she ‘d only do it if I directed it.”……..”and if you have Laughton, you’re onto a winner.”

Charles Laughton

In the Christie play of 1953, Laughton’s character doesn’t have heart trouble and there is no Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Typical of Wilder, he injected humour into the plot and ended up having Laughton and Lanchester almost  stealing the film from Power and Dietrich.

Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton

The Laughton/Lancaster exchanges are reminiscent of Monty Woolley and Mary Wickes in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”  Nurse Plimsoll treats Sir Wilfrid like a naughty boy – he hides his cigars in his cane and puts  brandy instead of cocoa in his flask.

 

Una O’Connor

Una O’Connor was the only member of the Broadway stage production to make into the film, playing the deaf housekeeper, with a suspect Scottish accent.

 

Norma Varden

Norma Varden,always good, as the murder victim.

 

Charles Laughton ,John Williams, Marlene Dietrich

 

Henry Daniell

John Williams and Henry Daniell have quite minor roles – Williams as Laughton’s junior barrister and Daniell as the defence solicitor. And that’s a pity – two very talented actors.

 

Charles Laughton, Ian Wolfe

Wonderful character actor Ian Wolfe (1896-1992) plays Sir Wilfrid’s office manager . What a career Ian Wolfe had – in films from 1934 to 1990. Steady work!

Billy Wilder, Charles Laughton, Ian Wolfe.

 

Torin Thatcher

Torin Thatcher,as the prosecutor, actually has a bigger role than either John  Williams or Henry Daniell.

I’ve always liked Torin  Thatcher and his distinctive precise and clipped tones.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

Did anyone believe Marlene’s ‘Cockney’ accent. Was it dubbed? The makeup artist deserved an Oscar! (IMDB credit  Charles Gemora and Wally Westmore.)

You  can hardly believe it’s Marlene!

 

And what of Tyrone Power. He initially didn’t want to do the film. Did he realise Charles Laughton had the lion’s share of screen time. Were he and Marlene a little too old for their roles. Tyrone was forty three , and heart trouble and heavy smoking had taken their toll . Marlene was over a decade older but still looked great.

Tyrone Power

Sadly, this would be Tyrone’s last completed film. He suffered a fatal heart attack while filming SOLOMON AND SHEBA a year later.

 

 

I’d like to see a 1953 version of the play on CBS Lux Video Theatre, with Edward G. Robinson, Andrea King, Tom Drake. This was a live broadcast which aired before the first stage play in London, and Edward G. Robinson’s first television appearance .

Edward G. Robinson, Andrea King

 

 

Just a thought . Marlene wears the classic grey suit on her first entrance. I guess Hitchcock liked that look too.

Alfred Hitchcock,Doris Day. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

 

Kim Novak.VERTIGO

 

It’s wonderful to see this letter from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder in which the author makes it clear she is very happy with Wilder’s film. She also indicates most film adaptations of her books don’t please her.

 

13 responses »

  1. Not at all what you expect of Wilder, is it? It’s a credit to his skills, and those of the cast, that it not only works but does so in such a spectacularly successful way.
    Actually, the more one looks at that cast, and the depth of talent involved, the more impressive it seems.
    Power really does look poorly for a man in his early 40s though.

  2. Possibly Wilder wouldn’t have done it if not for Marlene. He didn’t do his usual producing duties and may also have thought, with its few sets, it wouldn’t take up too much of his time.
    Wilder joked it was his Hitchcock film, but other than The Paradine Case, I don’t think it feels or looks like a Hitchcock.
    I think Wilder had fun writing for Laughton and Lanchester.
    Another surprising choice for Wilder was also in 1957 – Spirit of St.Louis.

  3. Laughton’s performance in this, and Remick’s in “Days of Wine and Roses”, are my two favourite movie performances – of all the movies that I have thus far seen.

    Thank you for your comments and research on this fine movie!

  4. Tyrone Power didn’t look well at all– He and Errol Flynn both aged poorly. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Cockney accent was dubbed. Torin Hatcher was a standout as Burt Lancaster’s first mate in The Crimson Pirate. All in all a great cast. Marlene Dietrich was lucky that Power looked older than he was, otherwise she would have looked too old for the part. Wonderful movie!

  5. I have never read anywhere that the Cockney accent was dubbed. Noel Coward coached Marlene ‘not easy teaching a German glamour puss who can’t pronounce her Rs’ In fact one r becomes a w in that scene.

  6. Vienna, a good write-up of a longtime favorite movie of mine. I first recall viewing WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION(1957) on the WREC Channel 3 Memphis, Tennessee LATE MOVIE in 1972. For me it continues to be a lot of fun to view. Yes, it may very well be the best Hitchcock movie never directed by Hitchcock. Although, producer/director Stanley Donen’s CHARADE(filmed 1962-63, released 1963) is a good one, also.

    I’ve never read Agatha Christie’s “Traitor’s Hands,” which is the original story. It was first published in the detective pulp magazine FLYNN’S WEEKLY(January 31, 1925). It is one of Christie’s early works. The story was later published in a collection of Christie’s titled THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION AND OTHER STORIES(1948). Here in the USA, a mass paperback print from 1984 can be purchased on ebay for less than $5.

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