Category Archives: Plays

Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense


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Major Barbara and Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw and the Dual Purposes of his Characters

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

The first George Bernard Shaw play I read was “Pygmalion,” which is his most famous and possibly most accessible work and I was completely enchanted. Shaw has a gift for smuggling in all sorts of didactic points into a delightful story. In “Pygmalion,” he deals with class, feminism, language and how language is symbolic of class, but also a social barrier that is artificial and can be demolished with just a little education,

In teaching Eliza, who is just a poor flower girl, to act like a lady and in bamboozling everyone at the ball into accepting her as a lady, Professor Higgins exposes the entire system as a fraud. However, Higgins is not solely a force for good. He is a superior arrogant, insensitive, childish bully, and he treats Eliza as though she were a flower girl, though he justifies this by saying that he treats all people as flower girls. In the end, Eliza walks away and denies him the right to treat her like his creation. Shaw makes it quite clear in his postscript to the play (which he wrote to quash romantic ideas about Higgins and Eliza) that they remain friends, but Eliza must leave because she is too strong a person to put up with being treated less than a full human, with feelings and will of her own.

Higgins has a dual role, then. He is both villain and hero. This tendency to put several attributes together, both positive and negative, is brilliantly done, but can be very confusing. In the next play I read by Shaw, “Major Barbara” – performed in 1905 – Shaw wrote what has been called one of his most political plays. It is about poverty, religion and recompense for crimes, war and even morality. Shaw packs a lot of ideas into three acts.

The play opens with Lady Britomart worrying about the future financial situations of her children, and so summons her husband, Andrew Undershaft. They have been separated for many years, because of his immoral attitudes towards life (though he was generally moral in action, and she did like him, but she said she wouldn’t have the attitudes in the house). When Undershaft comes, he barely remembers how many children he has. There is Stephen, who is somewhat in awe of his mother, Sarah, who is engaged to a man who will be a millionaire in ten years, and Barbara, who is a Major in the Salvation Army and is engaged to a professor of Greek (who joined the Salvation Army so he could be with Barbara).

The 1941 movie version of

The 1941 movie version of “Major Barbara”

Andrew Undershaft is incredibly wealthy as the owner of a munitions plant. He sells guns and cannons to anyone, no matter the moral question, just as long as they can pay. When he meets his children, he has very little use for Stephen and Sarah, but he and Barbara like each other. She works at a shelter in West Ham, London, and he is quite interested in her work. He notes that the motto of the Salvation Army might be his motto: Blood and Fire, though his blood and fire is quite different from hers. He is a secularist and she is religious and they both want to convert the other to their way of thinking. He agrees to come to her shelter if she will come to his cannon works.

Andrew Undershaft represents both tempter and sage in this play. He deliberately sets out to win Barbara to his way of thinking and he does this by undermining her faith in the Salvation Army. She is a dedicated saver of souls and she firmly believes one cannot buy one’s salvation. When a young man hits one of the Salvation Army workers, he tries to soothe his conscience by first getting beat up (but the man he chooses won’t oblige him) and then by paying her. But Barbara refuses to accept any of these this in substitution for actual reformation.

The shelter is in need of money, however, to stay open. When Undershaft learns of this, he offers to provide the funds, but Barbara won’t accept his money, either. She feels his money is tainted because of how he earns it and also because she refuses to accept anything less than Undershaft’s soul. But Undershaft destroys her faith in the Salvation Army when he again offers to give a large sum of money and is accepted by the Salvation Army commissioner. It seems to her that the army is endorsing the view that you can buy salvation by giving money, like buying indulgences.

Undershaft does offer an alternative faith to Barbara, however; now that he has shattered her illusions in organized religion. He offers her the creed of wealth. He believes that it is poverty that is a crime and the worst one of all. To be wealthy is to allow yourself the opportunity to have virtues, the “graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.” He believes that organizations like the Salvation Army are reinforcing the idea that because there is forgiveness for crimes, there is no need to really change. And also, because they are giving bread and teaching virtue, they are reinforcing the idea that it is okay to be poor, when poverty is the worst crime of all.

Wendy Hiller as Barbara and Rex Harrison as her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins in the 1941 movie

Wendy Hiller as Barbara and Rex Harrison as her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins in the 1941 movie

What Undershaft believes is that at all costs you must not be poor. This sounds rather like an advocation of greedy capitalism, which is ironic since Shaw was a socialist. However, I believe that he deliberately went out of his way to make Undershaft’s work and creed somewhat obnoxious in order to make a point. He gave him a distasteful job, so he could illustrate that even making cannons, Undershaft is more moral than the most virtuous poor man because the poor man is still participating, willfully, in the greatest evil of all. For Undershaft, man doesn’t need salvation; he needs money, he needs not to be poor. Undershaft’s weapons of war also furthers a theme Shaw is pursuing in the play, regarding making war on crime and poverty. The Salvation Army uses a similar metaphor of going to war.

I am not sure if Barbara exactly accepts his philosophy, though Adolphus, her fiancé, essentially lays aside his moral repugnance against war when he accepts Undershaft’s proposal to make him his heir to the munitions factory. Barbara still wants to save souls (though I cannot figure out what she means by salvation – spiritual, physical? – and salvation from what?), but she is now going to work on people who are not hungry, the many happy, well-fed workers at her father’s factory.

In fact, it is not at all clear to me how much of Undershaft’s philosophy we are to accept. Like Higgins, I am not sure he embodies right all the time. There is something rather devilish in how he sets out to destroy Barbara’s faith and surely Shaw does not mean that the cure for poverty is people trying to get wealth like Undershaft did, by whatever means necessary. Undershaft makes a virtue of getting money, which is something that Barbara has no interest in. She has not accepted her father’s belief in money so much as agreed to its necessity.

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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Plays


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