Shot in 1957, Witness for the Prosecution, is actor Tyrone Powers last completed film. He plays the lady killer defendant, Leonard Vole, with German bombshell, Marlene Dietrich, acting as his sultry actress/singer wife, Christine Vole, who goes on to testify against him, at his highly sensationalized British murder trial.
The Return of Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich rose to fame during silent pictures, then went on to become one of the highest paid actresses of the day.
She was one of the illustrious performers who boosted the morale of American soldiers during the WWII by performing for troops, like many of the notable characters she played, including Christine Vole.
The similarities don’t end there between her life and character, because of ageism, she was the target of the fickle entertainment industry’s ridicule despite her success on stage and screen.
After years of box office success, the public would lose interest in their movies as these great stars aged, and their ticket sale numbers would sharply decline.
Witness to the Prosecution was Marlene Dietrich’s grand return to the big screen after being labeled “Box Office poison” by columnists and critics of the day.
The film received multiple accolades including multiple category nominations and wins at the Academy Awards.
She forever remains known as a great humanitarian, outstanding actress, and morale performer made famous by her dry line delivery, exotic characters, longlasting presence and glamorous iconic style.
Sir Wilfred’s Lament and Sour Disposition Accompany His Convalescence
The film begins with the introduction of the famed British barrister, Sir Wilfred, “The Fox”, (played by Charles Laughton), who has just been expelled from his hospital for “conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient”.
He is on his way to return to his office for some light mental stimulation after his long recovery following a heart attack. Returning to the scene of the crime as it were, his office staff has not seen the great man since he was wheeled off.
To be sure he will not over tire himself, a lift has been installed for his convenience. Sir Wilfred is miserable, cantankerous, and grumpy throughout it all.
He has had it with the insufferable fussing, the weeping, the napping when really all he wanted was a sniffer of brandy and a good cigar.
Before he can get a full grasp of the lift controls, in walks Leonard Vole, who is accompanied by a cigar carrying solicitor. They provide two vices Sir Wilfred cannot do without, a cigar and real criminal case.
After he outwits his sturdy, long suffering nurse Miss Plimsol, (played by his actual wife, Elsa Lanchester), to be alone in his old office with the two, he listens to their rather preposterous tale of woe, over a contraband cigar.
Shaky alibi, healthy inheritance from the wealthy older woman, played by Norma Varden, he had been wooing and charming for weeks, Leonard is the prime suspect in her sudden murder.
The ultimate courtroom drama that ventures outside the courthouse, unfolds in true English Detective fashion, complete with flashbacks, witty dialogue and unforgettable performances from Hollywood legends.
Enter the German Wife: What is She Up To?
Charles Laughton’s, Sir Wilfred, is hesitant to commit to this new client, he’s in poor health, recovering from a coma and this case seemed somewhat beneath his talents for the demands.
He tries to palm Leonard and his troubled case off on the associate and ponders simply consulting on his case perhaps. Seemed open and shut considering he was the last person with the widow before she was found dead.
There was so much to do, on his first day already, and he was over due for his nap. Leonard’s wife would soon come calling liable to hysterics in his opinion because of her German blood.
He will soon learn Christine Helm Vole is made from sterner stuff than that.
Enter Christine Vole, as Sir Wilfred prepares for her arrival with some disdain, and she is all together not what one expects.
The news of Leonard’s arrest will not break her, she informs them cooly, she has come to expect it. Besides all that, Sir Wilfred is known for working with hopeless causes and surely her Leonard falls within those specifications?
He informs her, in no uncertain terms, her alibi for her husband is of little value to the courts. A loving wife is not permitted to give harmful evidence against her husband, and a good wife would say anything to protect him, one assumes, naturally. Why bother with calling her under so much speculation?
She insists on testifying on his behalf.
Sir Wilfred is curious as to what motivates her to go against his better judgment, and force her way onto the witness stand despite her lack of believability and the mountain of circumstantial evidence. He subjects her to the same pupil-light test her husband passed.
Christine manages to outwit Sir Wilfred’s ocular stress test he employed to determine her credibility by drawing the shade.
She is suspicious her credibility is being questioned because of her German accent rather than her relationship with Leonard. Christine is evasive when asked about their marriage, then bluntly asks for Sir Wilfred’s help in defending Leonard, not a legal crony.
She informs them, rather indirectly when asked, that she will say what Leonard has asked her to say out of gratitude. Which does grow tiresome.
What on earth did that mean? Would she be able to tell the truth? Did she truly know when her husband came home? The barristers wonder, will she be able to tell what happened? What was this woman about?
“It will be as he said.” Is the closest answer they can get to an affirmative. And with that, she is moved completely off of the defense witness list.
The Star Witness For the Prosecution
Loving Leonard was a hard won business for Christine. Though he’s a working man of humble means, he’s an inventor with lots of ambition, charming from being a saleman, and just swell with women.
Doesn’t hurt he’s good with his hands from his work in military service.
Which is how he met the little German flower that time forgot, Christine Helm, the singer, one night while he was off base on leave.
He’s somewhat distracted by the surroundings and the events of the evening, nearly lit her nose on fire when she chose the gum instead of the cigarette he offered.
This was after Leonard found her performing with her accordion in her nightclub act for crowds of drunken soldiers who paw at her each night.
The rowdy soldiers practically tear down the place because she wasn’t showing enough leg to suit them, ripping open her pant leg and causing a huge mess.
Leonard sticks around to see if he can be of help getting the place right again. The promise of instant coffee gets him an invite to the back.
He gives her his army food rations for her kisses, listens to her sad story and brings down the house with his amorous intentions.
Their romance begins.
Saved from these desperate circumstances, Christine is in no doubt grateful for his proposal, finally she has a home of her own, a life away from the lusty crowds and dear Leonard to worship her, that is until the lonely widow was found dead.
The Lady in the Hat Shop
Passing through town, Leonard sees the merry widow in a hat shop. Their eyes meet in the glass and they have a happy moment together. He gives her some compliments and helps her choose a fancy new hat.
They part ways on a good note until a few days later, when he sees the same hat blocking his view at the movies. It’s the merry widow once again.
He shows her his egg beater invention after she invites him home and there her maid Janet dislikes him from the start. She didn’t like his invention, didn’t like him in her kitchen and really didn’t like him with her mistress.
Janet also knew Leonard was the only one alone with her mistress, around the time she died, before she had come home that night to find her.
Another Witness for the Prosecution who has it out for him before the trial has a chance to start.
The Sensational Trial and Defense
Leonard is held for trial before the English courts, the prosecution will spare no expense when seeking justice for the murdered widow, Mrs. French.
Leonard is prone to sudden, exaggerated outbursts of his innocence throughout the heart stopping trial. Sir Wilfred is prone to sneaking sips of smuggled brandy to settle his nerves between popping his heart medicine.
The testimony is lively, heartfelt and damning, surely it’s all too much for Sir Wilfred to provide a proper defense?
And the prosecution’s star witness, his wife, what did she have to say now that his life was on the line??
What caused her to lose faith in him?
How will her testimony work against his increasingly shaky defense?
Written in a time when the film makers would ask its audience to “keep the secret” and not give away the ending of the film. How quaint the 50s were.
Today, people would probably snap chat selfies in the theater, while live Tweeting the plot with their phones, if they were so inclined. Their’s was just a different time and a different generation.
So, I will honor their wishes and not give away their ending, and instead promise that a rental or purchase of Witness for the Prosecution, is a promise of music, suspense, shock and well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself!
Seen this courtroom thriller complete with secreted show from the one and only, Marlene Dietrich, con accordion? Can you believe it? Drop me a comment below!
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