JUDICIAL REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

In which I review movies with a legal theme

legal review of witness for the prosecutionj

Appearing:  Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton

Set a few years after the Second World War, a senior barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (played by Charles Laughton), is asked to represent a man accused of murder.  Initially the barrister sets out to test the accused man’s defence before taking on the case. During this process, he finds one witness’s evidence is too good to be true.  When that witness turns on the accused at trial, the barrister’s concerns are vindicated.

A peek at who got costs:
There’s no way to peek at costs without revealing the end, except to say that all goes well for everyone concerned, at least at one point or another.  (A quaint feature of the film comes after the credits, when the audience is reminded not to reveal the end for those yet to see the film.)

The facts:
Sir Wilfred returns to work after recovering from a heart attack.  He is counselled not to take on too many difficult cases when he is introduced to Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power).  Vole is the only suspect of murder.  It is explained to Sir Wilfred that the murder victim was merely an aged companion of Vole’s but that he had left her premises long before the time of the murder.

Sir Wilfred at first refuses the case but then decides he is the best person to defend Vole. Sir Wilfred questions Vole to find holes in his alibi and the facts of the case. He becomes convinced of the viability of the defence and agrees to take on it on.

However, Sir Wilfred is visited by the defendant’s wife, Christine (played by Marlene Dietrich). Although Christine says all the right things, Sir Wilfred is leery of her testimony because it is unconvincing.

Sir Wilfred is put at ease knowing that Christine cannot be called as a witness to testify against her husband. During trial, however, she does appear as a witness to the objection of Sir Wilfred, based on spousal immunity. It turns out Vole and Christine were not in fact legally married so spousal privilege does not apply. Her testimony on the stand is drastically different than what she explained to Sir Wilfred in his office. Her testimony is devastating to Vole’s defence.

After her direct examination by the prosecution, Sir Wilfred is encouraged to visit an unnamed and unwilling witness who has information about Christine.  The barrister is handed a number of letters purportedly written by Christine to a lover.

The cross-examination of Vole’s wife is eviscerating. Her credibility on all issues is annihilated but Vole becomes distraught with the callous testimony of his wife’s. Sir Wilfred’s defence is obviously successful, but at some cost to his client’s emotions.

It is only after the acquittal that the real mystery unravels.

The law:
There is some excellent discussion of law in this film. The title character herself raises the issue of spousal privilege and it is addressed in the movie. In short, a married (as opposed to a common-law) spouse cannot testify against the other spouse in a criminal proceeding.

In one of the earliest mentions of blood evidence in a movie, the victim was found to have blood type “O”, which was also found on the accused’s jacket.  That the accused’s jacket had that blood-type on it seems to show culpability – until Sir Wilfred asks if Vole’s blood type is “O”.  It turns out it had not been tested.

There is one other point worth noting.  A lawyer’s job at court is to examine, cross-examine and advance argument. A lawyer is not permitted to give evidence and is prevented from providing opinion. This is addressed by Sir Wilfred when the prosecutors make conclusions about facts not in evidence.

Witness for the Prosecution is an Agatha Christie thriller. Her short play was turned into an excellent movie featuring the titans of their day, Laughton, Dietrich and Power.

Christine realizes that her evidence is unconvincing simply because of who she is: Vole’s loving wife. She takes it upon herself to do the very opposite of giving good evidence and leads evidence which is devastating, both legally and emotionally, to the accused.

The best of the legal profession is portrayed in this movie.  Sir Wilfred agrees to take on the defence of an accused murderer only after he understands the viability of the alibi defence being proposed.  For instance, a lawyer is not ethically allowed to lead an alibi defence if he or she knows the accused was in fact present at the scene of the crime.

Some poetic license is taken during the trial to allow the plot to unfold. However, tactical changes are sometimes made during trial arising from the evidence that is heard and which may not have been anticipated.

Although it is seldom the case that a ‘mystery witness’ appears in the course of trial, it can happen (and has happened to me).  A court prefers to hear as much admissible evidence as it can, so allowances are often made, even if witnesses and their testimony are initially a secret to counsel.

The 1957 version of Witness for the Prosecution is a wonderful romp through the Ol’ Bailey, the historic London Courthouse.  The film has murder, romance, humour and suspense.

The introduction of characters, the facts of the murder and its defence, the arrest of the accused, the implausibility of a wife’s testimony in support of a husband and the ammunition to be used for the defence are all prologue to the final 30 minutes of the film. However, the final 30 minutes are what make this movie a classic.  It can be enjoyed by anyone who may be frustrated with the modern phenomenon of criminal investigations resolving everything without a trial.

Obiter Dicta:
Witness for the Prosecution was Tyrone Power’s last movie.  Billy Wilder, the director and its screenplay writer, had originally planned to become a lawyer but opted instead to become a newspaperman and eventually wrote screenplays for motion pictures.

So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “Witness for the Prosecution” in the subject line of the email.


Special thanks to

Movies ‘n Stuff
Ottawa, ON

Next on the Docket:  My Cousin Vinny (1992)