Witness for the Prosecution could be called the granddaddy of the "gotcha" movie.
A "gotcha" film spends most of its running time getting the viewer to accept one version of reality, then at the last minute yanks the carpet out from under us by revealing that everything we've taken for granted up to this point has been wrong.
You know ... like The Sixth Sense? Or The Usual Suspects?
For "gotcha" we can thank famed mystery writer Agatha Christie, whose short story Traitor's Hands was published in Flynn's magazine in 1925. It was about a murder trial and a prosecution witness who seemed too good to be true – and proved to be just that.
Christie rewrote the story as the play Witness for the Prosecution which was televised live on CBS TV in 1953, then opened on the London stage a few months later. The next year the hit thriller found a home on Broadway where it played for 645 performances. Audiences were stunned and delighted by the last-act revelation that gave the story its oomph.
A movie version was inevitable. But the reason the 1957 film version of Witness is so terrific has less to do with Agatha Christie than with Billy Wilder.
In 1957 the Austrian-born Wilder had one of the strongest resumes in Hollywood. Over the previous two decades he had written and directed some of the classics of American film: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, and The Spirit of St. Louis. He had a reputation for elevating whatever material he tackled.
That was certainly the case with Christie's play. On stage it was all about plot, about setting up the audience and then knocking them down. The characters were perfunctory – practically clichés. And it was all played very straight.
Wilder oversaw a radical rewriting. He kept the basic structure – he knew not to mess with Christie's "gotcha" – but he turned the work into a comic character study of the defense lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts. He created scenes in which his portly star, Charles Laughton, could hold forth as an erudite but very grumpy old man who is always fiddling with his monocle.
Wilder even invented a new character, a nurse – played by Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester – who incessantly nags her heart attack-prone patient in a futile attempt to keep him on his medicines and off cigars and brandy. Their combative relationship is extremely funny and, ultimately, just as important to the film's success as Christie's last-reel switcheroo.
Taking the other major roles were former matinee idol Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, a charming playboy charged with murdering a rich widow he had seduced, and Marlene Dietrich as Vole's wife, who apparently is eager to see her philandering husband on Death Row.
Alas, that's about as much as I'm willing to say about the film, lest I give away some of its juicy secrets. In fact, keeping secrets is very much a part of the movie's history.
Wilder refused to give his cast members the final pages of the screenplay until just before the scenes were filmed. He didn't want their knowledge of the story's twists and turns to somehow color their performances.
The movie's poster proclaimed: "You'll talk about it, but please don't tell the ending."
And as a final precaution, every print of the movie (and today's DVD version), ends with this spoken admonition:
"The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution."
The film was a big hit and pulled down Academy Award nominations for best picture, lead actor (Laughton), supporting actress (Lanchester), director (Wilder, of course), editing, and sound.
Dietrich was bitterly disappointed that she did not get a nomination for her performance – which was key to the "gotcha" – but as Wilder told her:
"You'll never get an Oscar for this. People don't like to be made fools of."
Actually, Billy, it turns out that we do.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.