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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Witness for the Prosecution can be found here.
While recuperating from a heart attack, esteemed barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is asked to defend Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an out-of-work American inventor accused of murdering wealthy 56-year old widow Emily French (Norma Varden) for her money. Leonard's only witness in his behalf is his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who has agreed to be a witness...for the prosecution.
Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play adapted by English crime story writer, Dame Agatha Christie [1890-1976], from her short story 'Traitor's Hands', first published in the 31 January 1925 issue of Flynn's Weedkly and later renamed 'Witness for the Prosecution' when it was reprinted in the 1930s and 40s. The screenplay for the movie was written by Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz, and Billy Wilder (who also directed the movie). A TV remake, also titled Witness for the Prosecution, was released in 1982.
The year is 1952. The place is London.
Charles Laughton modeled his characterization of Sir Wilfrid Roberts on Florance Guedella, an English lawyer who was famous for twirling his monocle while cross-examining witnesses. Sir Wilfried apparently uses his monocle as a sort of lie detector. The logic seems to be that if the person being cross-examined can maintain his or her composure while the monocle reflects light in his eyes, he's probably telling the truth and is therefore worth defending. The latter would probably be difficult, and its effectiveness as a lie detector seems highly dubious. The original lawyer probably just used this technique on unfriendly witnesses to distract them, making their testimony sound less certain. That's assuming it wasn't merely a habit with no ulterior purpose.
After the verdict of not guilty, Christine admits that she was the scarred woman who met Sir Wilfred at the train station the previous night and gave him the letters that she wrote. She fabricated a lover named Max to mar her reputation so the jury would hate her and not believe her prior testimony, which really was true. That is, Leonard really was guilty. This was her strategy to get him off because she loved him. Leonard comes in all cocky after winning, and the young dark haired woman (Ruta Lee) who had been sitting with the nurse happily runs over to "Len". She was the clinging woman at the travel agency with him (and his girlfriend). He is cruel and snide to Christine, casting her aside, but reassuring her that he would pay for her perjury defense. Christine then pulls a knife, stabs, and kills him. Sir Wilfred says he needs to prepare the defense for the trial of Christine Vole. He says at one point that she didn't murder Leonard, she executed him.
Outside of a few name changes (e.g., Christine of the movie is called Romaine in the story), the biggest difference is in the ending, which does not involve any mention of perjury. Actually, it was Agatha Christie who made this change when adapting the story for her play. Christie grew dissatisfied with this ending (one of the few Christie endings in which a murderer escapes punishment), and, in her subsequent rewriting of the story as a play, added a mistress for Leonard Vole and the twist ending that appears in the movie. The biggest difference between the movie and the story/play is the addition of Sir Wilfred's nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Lancaster and Laughton were actually married to each other at the time.
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