Category Archives: Mystery

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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Lady on a Train (1945) – Deanna Durbin Investigates on Christmas

lady-on-a-train-movie-poster-1945-1020416325Lady on a Train is that unique film, a Screwball/Christmas/Musical/Mystery. Actually, it’s not technically a musical, but because the film stars Deanna Durbin, the girl who reportedly saved Universal Studios (the home of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy) from bankruptcy in the mid 1930s with her frothy musicals, the film manages to provide three songs for her to sing during the course of her investigations.

Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is on a train, coming into New York City from San Francisco to visit her aunt during Christmas. She is reading what appears to be a rather thrilling pulpy mystery (with eleven murders so far!) when she looks out her train window and sees a man murdered in a nearby building. She goes to the police, but they don’t believe her, so she goes to the author of the pulpy mysteries, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and tries to enlist his help. He gets dragged in, willy-nilly, while she discovers that the man who was killed was a not-so-nice business man named Josiah Waring. She sneaks into his house, just in time for the reading of his will.

She also runs into the family, which consists of Aunt Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) and his two nephews, Arnold Waring (Dan Duryea – his usual, delightfully creepy self) and Jonathan Waring (Ralph Bellamy). There are also two men who work at the house, a certain Mr. Saunders (George Courlouris) who walks around the now shut-up mansion  looking menacing with a white cat draped over his arm, and Danny (Allen Jenkins), who works under Mr. Saunders and also seems to be in on whatever secret Mr. Saunders seems to be in on.

2d1252d146647767665cc8debf876559At the house, however, Nikki is mistaken by the family for a night club singer named Margo Martin, to whom Josiah Waring has left everything he owned. Also while in the mansion, Nikki finds some slippers with blood on them that proves that a murder did take place and not just an accident, as the police believe. She smuggles the slippers out of the house and goes to the nightclub to masquerade as Margo Martin.

It’s an extremely fun movie, with a fairly good mystery, as well. It’s not in Agatha Christie’s class, but still manages to obscure who the killer is so that you are never 100% sure (I’ve seen some mysteries where I can pick out the villain the moment he/she walks into the room).

Deanna Durbin does a good job playing a young lady with an active imagination and great tenacity, somewhat naïve, always gung-ho, who is never much perturbed by events – she just keeps on investigating and ad-libbing and quite casually dragging people into it with her. Durbin had a beautiful, operatic voice, and the highlight song is her rendition of “Silent Night,” which she sings over the phone to her father, while Danny stands outside her room, about to steal the slippers back. He is so affected by the song that he has to wipe tears out of his eyes before he can go on with his work and conk several people on the head.

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton - with a black eye

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton – with a black eye

A real scene stealer (as he always is) is Edward Everett Horton, who is Mr. Haskell, the manager of her father’s New York Office who is supposed to be looking after her while she is in New York, though he keeps losing sight of her and gets himself punched in the eye, hit on the head twice and runs about looking for her and even has to bail her out of jail.

David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan, a somewhat hen-pecked boyfriend who’s model girlfriend makes him apologize several times a day for some reason or another. He is an enthusiastic writer – he likes to act his book out while dictating, falling on the floor and clutching his stomach – while his acerbic secretary hopes that she can trash his notes rather than type them. He is also game to help Nikki or fight some villains, though he is often more inept than useful, at one point taking the gun away from the brother who is trying to help Nikki and giving it to the murderer.

And of course there is Dan Duryea, the wonderful, snarky, snaky, menacing Dan Duryea. When he is at the nightclub with his aunt and brother, Aunt Charlotte is shocked that Jonathan (her favorite nephew, whom she is almost too fond of – she can’t stand Arnold) would dance with Nikki, since he ought to be in mourning and not living it up. Dan Duryea turns and looks at her and then says innocently to the waiter, “I’ll have a martini, please.” Aunt Charlotte gives him a highly reproachful glance. “With a black olive in it.” He then says to the waiter. It’s a very Duryean line and the way he says it is hysterical.

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce - knocked out again

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce – knocked out again

It’s the kind of film with people running around, chasing villains, being caught by villains, losing slippers, stealing slippers, murder and lots of mayhem. It’s also the kind of film where Nikki, when her dress is torn when she is locked into the real Margo’s dressing room, stops to change her dress (and hair) before looking for a way out. She then breaks through the one-way mirror and emerges to sing a Cole Porter song.

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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Comedy, Mystery


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Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) – Murder, Mystery, Opera and even Racism

charlie_chan_at_the_opera_importThere is something very satisfying about a movie that is 90 minutes or less. The dialogue, the action, everything is economical and has a purpose. It is particularly satisfying when you want something for after dinner or during a work week and time is precious. It has a story to tell, it tells it, and comes to its conclusion.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is slightly more extreme in its brevity. It is only 66 minutes long, but manages to tell a complete story that takes place during one night at the opera.

In the opening credits it reads: “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff,” so you have a pretty good idea what the highlight of the film is going to be.

It is a dark and stormy night….literally, while inside an asylum, a man (Boris Karloff) cannot remember who he is and nobody seems to know. But he spends his evenings at the piano, singing some very Wagnerian sounding opera. But when a newspaper is brought in with the picture of Lilli Rochelle, who is returning to opera after having been away for seven years, he remembers who he is and busts out of the asylum.

A manhunt is underway. Meanwhile, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives a death threat and goes to the police, who bring in Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is not impressed with Chan, but soon discovers that behind Chan’s genial smile and polite manners is a mind as sharp as Sherlock Holmes.

It is thought that the murderer will try to kill her during the opening of the opera and that the mysterious man who escaped from the asylum might be the man who sent the death threat. There are plenty of other suspects, however. Lillie Rochelle has been carrying on a long standing affair with the baritone of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). He has a jealous wife, second soprano Anita Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), Lilli has a jealous husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy) and there is a young couple that wants to see Lilli before she starts her opera.


Boris Karloff and Warner Oland

Charlie Chan is assisted in his detection by his Americanized son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who sneaks into the opera house dressed as a supernumerary (the guys who hang out in the background of an opera to create a crowd). He is also more dubiously assisted by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), who seems easily distracted from the clues that really matter.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally considered the best of all the Charlie Chan movies. It is highly informative of attitudes during the 1930s to consider the Charlie Chan movies. Very popular in his day, in the 1980s, many people felt that Charlie Chan was hopelessly stereotypical and called him a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and felt that the character should be laid to rest forever.

There definitely are stereotypes and slurs. In the movie, Inspector Kelly makes several offensive comments, always getting Chan’s name wrong and calling him everything from “Chop Suey” to “Egg Foo Yung.” However, Inspector Kelly is rather a buffoon, so it is not obvious that we are to take him seriously. Oddly, he is playing his racism for laughs.

Regarding the idea that he is an Asian “Uncle Tom” because he is subservient and genial, I see what they are getting at, though it is also a part of his method. He’s pulling one of Hercule Poirot’s favorite tricks, in that by acting “foreign,” people underestimate him; he uses their racism against them.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Also emblematic of the times is that the Charlie Chan character was almost always played by a Caucasian actor. Warner Oland actually made a career out of it. I’m not sure that he ever played a non-Asian role (except during the silent era), even when he wasn’t playing Charlie Chan. Oland was Swedish and somehow Hollywood felt that made him more qualified to play the part. Hollywood has a curious history of casting Swedes as Asians. In Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, he cast the Swedish actor Nils Asther, and Myrna Loy, who had Swedish ancestors, frequently played Asians in her early career.

Interestingly, according to Yunte Huang – who has written a book about the character of Charlie Chan and the real man that the author, Earl Derr Biggers, based his character on – Charlie Chan used to be extremely popular among Asians and Asian-Americans. In China, they made many movies with the character and modeled their portrayal of him after Warner Oland’s. Chan was considered at the time to be a refreshing alternative to all the movies involving Asians as evil criminals, like Fu Manchu. Keye Luke later defended the films by arguing that they should be remembered because they still are great mysteries.

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and  wielding his knife in the fake opera

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and wielding his knife in the fake opera “Carnival”

One fun part of the movie is, of course, opera. I am an opera fan (though more of an Italian opera fan) and there is something about an opera house that just begs to be used as a setting for mystery and murder (think The Phantom of the Opera). For the opera that Lilli is making her return, Oscar Levant was hired to write a pseudo-opera. Levant is probably best remembered for being in films like An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, where he always plays the piano and indulged in his own unique brand of trenchant wry humor. He was a pianist, composer, actor, writer, wit, hypochondriac and good friend of George Gershwin. The opera he wrote snippets of is called “Carnival” and sounds and looks very Teutonic. Boris Karloff is clearly lip-singing in the film as he plays the role of Mephisto in the opera. He also gets to wear one of the most outlandish headdresses I have ever seen.

All in all, it makes for a fascinating watch. William Demarest does his comedy, Boris Karloff plays insane and Warner Oland solves the murders.

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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery


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