The 1957 film of Agatha Christie’s play Witness for the Prosecution is a delightful, captivating, well-constructed affair. As long as you don’t figure out the key twist (which relies on a very skillful act of legerdemain), it will bowl you over. And even if you do figure it out – as I did – Christie still throws in one or five shocks at the end for good measure. Impeccably acted by Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester and Tyrone Power (and with a debatable performance from Marlene Dietrich thrown in for good measure), it’s a bona fide success. So, how does the 1982 TV remake stand up?
The simple answer is: not as well.
To their credit, the screenwriters are very faithful to Billy Wilder‘s original script, particularly where it covers the elements germane to Christie’s immaculately contrived murder mystery. (The fact that this woman didn’t write more courtroom dramas aggrieves me, as she’s really very good.) As a result, the film is just as structurally sound as its predecessor.
Where it falls down, primarily, is in the tonal shift from black-and-white masterpiece to placid TV movie. As Sir Wilfred, Ralph Richardson is his usual sly self: able to exchange witty ripostes with the best of them, and powerful as soon as he steps into the courtroom. He’s far less blustery than Laughton, fair enough, but unfortunately it shows in his relationship with Nurse Plimsoll, played here by no less a luminary than Deborah Kerr in one of her final roles. Obviously, a 1980s TV film was never going to adopt the same tone as a small British film from the ’50s, but their quieter relationship doesn’t have anything on the bickering back-and-forth that was Laughton and Lanchester. Kerr, in fact, gets very little to do beyond just adding a quiet dignity to her role: she does it well, but one has to imagine she thought the role would be more when she signed on. (On the plus side, it’s far more believable that Sir Wilfred is just recovering from a heart attack!)
I’m going to get all my negative comments out of the way before I accentuate the positive, okay? Some elements that worked well in the heightened reality of 1957 fail here, notably Sir Wilfred’s monocle trick, which comes across as a sham magician’s performance rather than a clever act of interrogation. Meanwhile, two of the characterisations leave much to be desired – although none of the blame rests with the actresses involved. First, Wendy Hiller is given an utterly thankless role as the dead woman’s housekeeper. Maybe I’m too much of a classic movie buff, but I miss the scatter-brained, blind-with-hatred portrayal in the old film. Here, Janet is written simply as a loyal servant, whose dislike for the defendant comes from legitimate mistrust. Hiller imbues the role with the requisite subtlety, but the Judge (Michael Gough) and those in the gallery openly laugh at her as if she’s doing the older film’s portrayal. It just doesn’t compute! Finally, in the most shameful rewrite of them all, the blonde (Primi Townsend) is woefully underwritten. One of the most delightful elements of the original film is how she initially expresses scorn, and then reluctant intrigue, at Nurse Plimsoll’s actions, and how – over the course of the trial – they become closer with each passing day, in that very real way that we form brief bonds with people when, say, we’re waiting in the airport lounge while our flight is delayed. Here, we only see her briefly, and Townsend’s face only registers mild disinterest in Plimsoll. Even her reveal at the very end – one of the original film’s sucker punches – is underwritten!!
It’s not all regrettable though, indeed it couldn’t be. The plot is too well put-together for that, and the central antagonistic relationship between Sir Wilfred and the eponymous witness – the defendant’s wife Christine (Diana Rigg) is all the more interesting because of it. I’m going to put it out there: Rigg is simply better than Marlene Dietrich in this role. We all know she can play the ice maiden with the best of them, but Rigg really delivers as the uptight German wife whose allegiance remains unknown for most the film. As I said in my last review, the film doesn’t want us to worry about Mrs. French’s murderer – it was either Vole or it wasn’t – instead, like Sir Wilfred, our central question is understanding the motivations of Christine, and Rigg delivers. It’s a challenging role, having to be ambiguous while playing a character who betrays no emotions, but she comes off quite well. As her husband in the dock, Beau Bridges is also very strong, making us genuinely believe his innocence, yet confusing us when it becomes clear that – even if he didn’t kill Mrs. French – he clearly was after the old woman’s money anyway. Sir Wilfred is no idiot, and he’s not about to believe the Voles just because they passed his monocle test: but something tells him that Vole is innocent, and it’s that strong moral compass which leads him on. Richardson brings a quintessential Britishness to the role, particularly in that great moment when he proclaims that he’s satisfied and then – the minute Christine has left the room – roars, “I’m damned if I’m satisfied!”
The one place where this film beats the previous film (other than Rigg’s performance) is that the lengthy flashback to Germany is omitted. Not only was it the most costly sequence of the original film (and really just an excuse to show Dietrich’s legs) but it detracts significantly from the claustrophobic vibe of the courtroom, and I for one am not sorry to see it gone.
The lead-up to the climax is, I’ll concede, very well done. Director Alan Gibson makes Sir Wilfred’s meeting with the other woman far more atmospheric, in a dank apartment which is both far seedier than the original’s location, and also far more conducive to the plot, if you know what I mean. (And if you don’t, please watch one of these movies already!) While I question a couple of shots during the final trial sequence – as they show us characters emoting very sincerely even though later we’re led to believe this is a sham – the way in which the solution is revealed is done with a slightly more naturalistic edge here: far less cruel and Bond-villain like, which I appreciate. But suffice it to say there are a few moments where the TV movie laziness rears its ugly head: it’s perhaps just due to the blocking and direction, but the carelessness on behalf of whoever controls the evidence (which figures into the final scene), and the tacky ‘good time’ vibe of the final line… well, they’re not great. (And seriously: why would they remove the great physical gag of the chairlift by replacing it with an actual lift!?)
In closing: Witness for the Prosecution is not a total write-off, it’s basically what you expect from a TV reworking of a classic film. But rent the original, please: you won’t regret it. In fact, you’ll have a real good time.