Witness for the Prosecution
Original release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byLarry Marcus
Billy Wilder
Harry Kurnitz
Based onThe Witness for the Prosecution
1926 story / 1953 play
by Agatha Christie
Produced byArthur Hornblow Jr.
StarringTyrone Power
Marlene Dietrich
Charles Laughton
Elsa Lanchester
CinematographyRussell Harlan
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Music byMatty Malneck
Edward Small Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • December 17, 1957 (1957-12-17) (Limited U.S. release)
  • January 30, 1958 (1958-01-30) (Premiere, London)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million[1]
Box office$9 million

Witness for the Prosecution is a 1957 American legal mystery thriller film directed by Billy Wilder and starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester. The film, which has elements of bleak black comedy and film noir, is a courtroom drama set in the Old Bailey in London and is based on the 1953 play of the same name by Agatha Christie. The first film adaptation of Christie's story, Witness for the Prosecution was adapted for the screen by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz, and Wilder. The film was acclaimed by critics and received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It also received five Golden Globes nominations including a win for Elsa Lanchester as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Additionally, the film was selected as the sixth-best courtroom drama ever by the American Film Institute for their AFI's 10 Top 10 list.[2]


Senior barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who is recovering from a heart attack, agrees to defend Leonard Vole despite the objections of Robarts' private nurse Miss Plimsoll, as Sir Wilfrid's doctor has warned him against taking any criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Emily French, a wealthy, childless widow who had become enamored of him and had named him as the main beneficiary in her will. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Vole as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid believes Vole to be innocent.

When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Vole's German wife Christine, he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi, although it is not entirely convincing. He is greatly surprised when, during the trial, she is summoned as a witness by the prosecuting barrister.

While a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband, Christine was still married to Otto Helm, a German man now living in East Germany in the Russian Zone, when she wed Vole (who was in the Royal Air Force and part of the occupation forces in Germany and had married her to help her escape Germany). She testifies that Vole privately confessed to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth.

During the trial in the Old Bailey, Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman who, for a fee, provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max. The handwriting is genuine, and the woman has a legitimate reason for providing the letters: her face has been scarred and slashed, supposedly by Max. The letters include an account of Max and Christine's plan to kill Leonard, which convinces the jury that Christine had deliberately perjured herself. Leonard is acquitted, much to the crowd's delight.

However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled by the verdict. He is proved correct when Christine, brought into the courtroom for safety after being assailed by the departing crowd for her conduct, tells him that he had help winning the case. Sir Wilfrid had told Christine before the trial that any alibi contributed by a loving wife would not be believed by the jury, so she played a hateful, double-crossing wife and proffered testimony implicating her husband and then forged the letters to the non-existent Max and assumed a disguise to play the mysterious woman who contributed the letters, discrediting her own testimony and leading to the acquittal. She admits that she saved Leonard, although she knew that he was guilty, because she loves him. She accepts that she may be tried for perjury.

Leonard, who has overheard Christine's admission, cheerfully confirms that he indeed killed Mrs. French. Sir Wilfrid is infuriated but helpless to stop Leonard because of double jeopardy laws (since overturned in the United Kingdom) that would prevent a retrial. Christine is shocked to discover that Leonard has been in an affair with a younger woman for whom he plans to abandon Christine, feeling he and Christine are now even because they have saved each other's lives.

Christine angrily grabs a knife (used earlier as evidence and subtly highlighted by a reflection on Sir Wilfrid's monocle) and kills Leonard. After she is arrested by the police, Sir Wilfrid, urged on by Miss Plimsoll, declares that he will take on Christine's defense.





Producers Arthur Hornblow and Edward Small bought the rights to the play for $450,000. The play was adjusted to emphasize the character of the defense barrister.[3] Billy Wilder was signed to direct in April 1956.[4] According to Wilder, when the producers approached Marlene Dietrich about the part, she accepted on the condition that Wilder direct. Wilder said that Dietrich liked "to play a murderess" but was "a little bit embarrassed when playing the love scenes."[5]

Vivien Leigh was considered for the role of Christine Vole.[6] Laughton based his performance on Florance Guedella, his own lawyer, an Englishman who was known for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses.[3]

In a flashback showing how Leonard and Christine first meet in a German nightclub, she is wearing her trademark trousers, made famous by Dietrich in director Josef von Sternberg’s film Morocco (1930).[7] A rowdy customer rips them down one side, revealing one of Dietrich's renowned legs and starting a brawl. The scene required 145 extras and 38 stuntmen, and cost $90,000.[8] The bar is called Die blaue Laterne (English: The Blue Lantern), which is a reference to Dietrich's famous film The Blue Angel.

United Artists' "surprise ending"

At the end of the film, as the credits roll, a voiceover announces:

The management of this theater 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.[9]

This was in keeping with the advertising campaign for the film. One of the posters said: "You'll talk about it! - but please don't tell the ending!"[10]

The effort to keep the ending a secret extended to the cast. Billy Wilder did not allow the actors to view the final ten pages of the script until it was time to shoot those scenes. The secrecy reportedly cost Marlene Dietrich an Academy Award, as United Artists did not want to call attention to the fact that Dietrich was practically unrecognizable as the Cockney woman who hands over the incriminating letters to the defense.[11]


In a contemporary review for The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "... [T]here's never a dull or worthless moment. It's all parry and punch from the word 'Go!', which is plainly announced when the accused man is brought to Mr. Laughton at the beginning of the film. And the air in the courtroom fairly crackles with emotional electricity, until that staggering surprise in the last reel. Then the whole drama explodes. It's the staging of the scenes that is important in this rapidly moving film ... It's the balancing of well-marked characters, the shifts of mood, the changes of pace and the interesting bursts of histrionics that the various actors display."[4]

Agatha Christie "herself considered it the finest film derived from one of her stories."[12][13] It currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews with an average rating of 8.53/10.[14] In TV Guide's review of the film, it received four and a half stars out of five, the writer saying that "Witness for the Prosecution is a witty, terse adaptation of the Agatha Christie hit play brought to the screen with ingenuity and vitality by Billy Wilder."[15]

The American Film Institute included the film in AFI's 10 Top 10 at #6 in the courtroom-drama category.

Box Office

The film reached number one at the American box office for two consecutive weeks in February and March 1958.[16]

It earned $3.75 million in its first year.[17]


Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards[18] Best Picture Arthur Hornblow Jr. Nominated
Best Director Billy Wilder Nominated
Best Actor Charles Laughton Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Elsa Lanchester Nominated
Best Film Editing Daniel Mandell Nominated
Best Sound Recording Gordon E. Sawyer Nominated
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role Charles Laughton Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Billy Wilder Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Charles Laughton Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Marlene Dietrich Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Elsa Lanchester Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Billy Wilder Nominated
Laurel Awards Top Drama 4th Place
Top Female Dramatic Performance Marlene Dietrich 2nd Place
Online Film & Television Association Awards Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Won

Home media

Witness for the Prosecution was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on December 11, 2001 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD, and by Kino Lorber (under license from MGM) on Blu-ray on July 22, 2014 as a Region 1 widescreen disc.

See also


  1. ^ "Hollywood Vanity". Variety. November 27, 1957. p. 24.
  2. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Courtroom Dramas American Film Institute. Retrieved September 14, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Scheuer, Philip K. (July 14, 1957). "A Town Called Hollywood: Outcome of Christie Play Kept Dark Secret for Film". Los Angeles Times. p. E2.
  4. ^ a b Pryor, Thomas M. (April 27, 1956). "NEW MOVIE DEAL FOR BILLY WILDER: Signed to Direct 'Witness for the Prosecution' After Completing 2 Other Films R.K.O. Buys Rose TV Play". The New York Times. p. 22.
  5. ^ Crowe, Cameron (1999). Conversations with Billy Wilder (First ed.). New York: Borzoi Books. p. 171. ISBN 9780375406607.
  6. ^ Parsons, Louella (April 30, 1956). "Wilder to Do Broadway, London Hit". The Washington Post and Times-Herald. p. 32.
  7. ^ Zigelstein 2004. "...this scene alluded playfully to Dietrich’s iconic performances in The Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco."
  8. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". IMDb.com. Internet Movie Database.
  9. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Internet Movie Poster Database. Archived from the original on October 15, 2009. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  10. ^ Zigelstein 2004. "the end credits earnestly entreat the audience not to divulge [the surprise ending] upon leaving the theater."
  11. ^ Osborne, Robert (October 29, 2008). Comments on TCM broadcast. Turner Classic Movies.
  12. ^ Zigelstein 2004.
  13. ^ Schallert, Edwin (December 18, 1957). "'WITNESS FOR PROSECUTION' DYNAMIC COURTROOM FILM". Los Angeles Times. p. B14.
  14. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  15. ^ "Witness for the Prosecution". TV Guide. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
  16. ^ "National Boxoffice Survey". Variety. March 12, 1958. p. 3. Retrieved September 26, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  17. ^ "Top Grossers of 1958". Variety. January 7, 1959. p. 48. Please note figures are for US and Canada only and are domestic rentals accruing to distributors as opposed to theatre gross
  18. ^ "The 30th Academy Awards | 1958". Oscars.org. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 21, 2011.