- 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.”
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.
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 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,always good, as the murder victim.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 .
Just a thought . Marlene wears the classic grey suit on her first entrance. I guess Hitchcock liked that look too.
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.