EVOLUTION OF A COURTROOM MYSTERY: Witness for the Prosecution

They’re celebrating all mysterious things from 1957 over at Rich’s wonderful blog, Past Offenses, so I thought I’d join the party with some thoughts on Witness for the Prosecution, Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short story. Discussion will follow which necessitates spoiling the central gimmick of the story. Now, I can’t really imagine anyone stopping by long enough to read this who is not familiar with the story or the film, but if you are one of these people – STOP READING NOW! This is a tale you want to come to spoiler-free. For the rest of you, let’s take a ride, shall we?

Christie’s story dates back to 1925, when it appeared in a magazine, Flynn’s Weekly, under the title “Traitor Hands.” The title changed when it was included in Christie’s collection of mostly supernatural tales, The Hound of Death, in 1933. It is a small, clever story about a charming rake named Leonard Vole, who befriends a lonely rich woman and then stands trial for her murder because she had left him all her money in her will. A mousy little lawyer named Mr. Mayherne believes in Leonard’s innocence and defends him despite the strong motive and mounting evidence against him. In the nick of time, Mayherne uncovers an ingenious plot to frame Leonard and succeeds in having the defendant exonerated, only to discover at the last minute that the lawyer himself has been played for a sucker.

In 1953, Christie adapted her story into a play and made several changes: she opened up the action to encompass a larger cast, she altered the protagonist to the more dynamic Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC, and, most significantly, she upended the finale. I read that the original twist had always bothered Christie because it was the first time she had allowed a truly cold-blooded killer to get away with his crime. And so she conceived a further twist to confound her audience and yet allow justice, of the distinctly poetic kind, to take its course: having lied on the stand not once but twice in order to save the sociopath she adores, Leonard’s wife Romaine dramatically knifes him to death in the courtroom when he spurns her love. I find this a less effective ending, since the final lines of the story are so appropriately chilling, as you can see for yourself:

“I still think,” said little Mr. Mayherne, in an aggrieved manner, “that we could have got him off by the—er—normal procedure.”
“I dared not risk it. You see you thought he was innocent—”
“And you knew it? I see,” said little Mr. Mayherne.
“My dear Mr. Mayherne,” said Romaine, “you do not see at all. I knew—he was guilty!”

Now, that’s how you end a mystery story! Still, I will concede that Christie’s new ending plays better on stage, and the crowds went wild on both sides of the Atlantic. Patricia Jessel, the actress who played Romaine in both the West End and on Broadway, won a Tony for her efforts. She then went on to play another role Romaine-like riole at the Old Vic – Lady Macbeth!

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And now we come to the 1957 film adaptation. First, we have three screenwriters, including the director himself, to add spice and humor to Christie’s dialogue. Then we have a tremendous cast, led by Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred, Marlene Dietrich as Romaine, and, in his final screen role, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole who raise the sordid machinations of this case into something more epic. (Dietrich even sings here!) From the original Broadway cast, Wilder included Una O’Connor, a noted character actress, as Janet MacKenzie, the victim’s crabby housemaid.

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Then, out of the blue, Billy Wilder adds a brand new character in order to accommodate Laughton’s wife, the fabulous Elsa Lanchester, and so Sir Wilfred is given poor health and a nurse to nag him in the form of Miss Plimsoll. While one may accuse this choice, no matter how charming and amusing it turns out to be, of distracting us from Christie’s central mystery, it actually succeeds in adding a depth of meaning to the story that has been missing all along and brings greater balance to the new ending. (Note – in all fairness – Since the ending of the short story is definitely unbalanced, I imagine fans will be divided as to their feelings for the direction in which Wilder took his version.)

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In the original story, the lawyer is a dupe, pure and simple. He is barely characterized and goes through his motions merely so that Christie can unfold Romaine’s machinations to save her guilty husband. In the play, Sir Wilfred is a more dynamic character, but he is still ultimately powerless; Romaine holds the cards from beginning to end and is responsible for both of the climactic twists.

In the film, Dietrich more than holds her own as Romaine, but the richer journey belongs to Laughton’s Sir Wilfred. Witness becomes the story of the dramatic comedown of two overconfident men, one good and one evil. Sir Wilfred believes he possesses the psychological insight to be able to accurately read people and determines, rightfully, that Romaine is a liar and, oh so wrongly, that Leonard is innocent. He believes he has the physical and emotional energy to tackle a difficult murder case, despite his nurse’s dire warnings against taking Leonard on as a client.

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Leonard has to be a more passive character since the nature of the mystery requires that his true nature be kept hidden. The story’s final twist works because all we have seen of Leonard suggests that he’s a nice guy who got a raw deal and we never actually see him act villainous, since his guilt is revealed when he is safely out of the action. The play and the movie allow the actor playing Leonard to dramatically reveal at the very end how truly immoral he is. “Thanks for saving my life, baby,” he basically says to Romaine for her double perjury. “Now get out of the way while I take my new doll for a stroll.” His ego is revealed to be as monstrous as Sir Wilfred’s, and the play ends with both men broken, one physically, the other spiritually, and a woman with a knife in her hand standing triumphantly center stage.

But Billy Wilder has something more on his mind in his adaptation, for with his new ending he brings about the redemption of Sir Wilfred Robarts and validates Elsa Lanchester’s addition to the cast. Up to the end, her scenes in the film with Sir Wilfred are enormously funny, but she is basically a nagging foil to the barrister’s sense of invulnerability. Once Leonard falls to his death in the courtroom, Sir Wilfred and Miss Plimsoll become united as allies “She killed him,” Miss Plimsoll tells Sir Wilfred, and we can see the broken spirit of the attorney reviving as he wags his finger in her face and replies, “She executed him!” With that, the nurse stands by the lawyer as he vows to defend Romaine on murder charges. Is there any doubt that he will triumph? While this echoes the finale to Murder on the Orient Express, it also gives Sir Wilfred a happy ending. As I stated above, this subverts Christie’s original intent in both the story and the play. To me, however, the film’s ending is the most satisfying – a triple twist in which every character gets his or her just desserts!

Speaking of dessert, here’s Dietrich’s musical number, “I May Never Go Home Anymore” from the film:

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9 thoughts on “EVOLUTION OF A COURTROOM MYSTERY: Witness for the Prosecution

  1. Is there an element of Christie being unsatisfied with her own endings in these adaptations, do you think? This and ATTWN had notable reversals in the final stretch and since these strike me of examples were the ending was someting Christie had firmly in mind when she started – with the short story especially, and ATTWN is set up purely to reach that endgame – I’m curious about this revisionist air she brought to two such brilliant works.

    Also, on a different note, how much does that look like Richard Nixon at the top of the film poster?! Wowzer!

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  2. Personally, I think her revision of ATTWN is pure shite, a cave-in to timid producers that cuts the legs right out from under the story. The changes to “Witness” cut the sting as well, but my argument is that here, at least, something just as rich emerges.

    Who’s Richard Nixon? (We Democrats are required to say that . . .)

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  3. I read the original story, I’m honestly surprised that they chose to make a play/movie out of it, as when you get down to it, it’s a rather basic legal thriller with a tweeeest. Still, nice to know that adaptations don’t always butcher everything. 😛

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    1. Both play and movie open up the story to include the machinations of a British trial. They focus more on the lawyer in the case and have the chance to dramatize the central female character’s plotting more. The story itself is rather slight, I agree. It’s all about the twist. I think the movie especially is so entertaining that you never feel like you’re waiting for that twist to come.

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  4. This film is one reason I love Billy Wilder as director and writer. Not only the Christie story, but then two great moments between Laughton’s Sir Wilfred and Lanchester’s Nurse Plimsoll:

    Nurse: “I was a nurse in the war!”
    Sir Wilfred: “Which war was that? The Crimean, no doubt?”

    And yet, despite his sniping at her all through the film, at the climax approaches in court and Sir Wilfred makes a masterstroke, we see Miss Plimsoll declaiming with pride:

    “Wilfred the Fox! That’s what they call him, and that’s what he is!”

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