Witness for the Prosecution (1982 TVM)

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A very good remake of a classic movie!
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UK, US / 102 minutes / color / United Artists Dir: Alan Gibson Pr: Norman Rosemont Scr: John Gay Story: “Traitor’s Hands” (1925 Flynn’s Weekly) and Witness for the Prosecution (1953 play), both by Agatha Christie, and the screenplay for Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, Diana Rigg, David Langton, Richard Vernon, Peter Sallis, Michael Gough, Frank Mills, Michael Nightingale, Peter Copley, Patricia Leslie, Primi Townsend.

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Christie’s play has been filmed several times. The most famous adaptation is quite clearly Billy Wilder’s 1957 movie Witness for the Prosection, featuring Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Tyron Power and, in what’s effectively an unorthodox version of the femme fatale role, Marlene Dietrich.

Because of the fame of the Wilder adaptation, it’s easy to think it must have been the first. Not so. As far as I can gather, the first movie adaptation was a BBC TVM, Witness for the Prosecution (1949) dir John Glyn-Jones, with Derek Elphinstone, Mary Kerridge and Dale Rogers; I haven’t seen this movie, which must have been one of the earliest of all TVMs, and I’ve no idea whether or not it survives. Other early TV adaptations include an episode of CBS’s Danger series, Witness for the Prosecution (1950), and the Lux Video Theatre version, Witness for the Prosecution (1953), with Edward G. Robinson. For obvious reasons, I’d really like to track down the 1949 and 1953 adaptations.

There’s a two-part adaptation due from the BBC in December of this year, directed by Julian Jarrold; I’m much looking forward to this one. Ben Affleck is planning to direct and star in another remake, for 2018; there’s not much by way of detail available yet.

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A nervous Janet Mackenzie (Wendy Hiller) makes her way home on a dark and stormy night.

Back to the 1982 adaptation. This is based very firmly on the Billy Wilder movie, retaining as it does the character of Nurse Plimsoll, created especially for that movie, where it was played by Elsa Lanchester, arguably because the character added a lot to the story (I’d agree) but, according to longstanding rumor, because husband Laughton and wife Lanchester twisted Wilder’s arm. Whatever’s the truth, Lanchester made a tremendous and Oscar-nominated fist of the role in Wilder’s adaptation; as a great fan of Lanchester, it grieves me to conclude that, in this 1982 version, Deborah Kerr may have fulfilled it even better. Overall, in fact, while the 1957 adaptation was star-studded, this remake was arguably even more so: actors like Richard Vernon and Peter Sallis are low on the cast list, while the estimable Peter Copley is given just a bit part—as the long-suffering physician who’s trying to keep Richardson’s character alive.

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Deborah Kerr is almost too good as the nagging, bossy Nurse Plimsoll.

It’s London, 1954. Legendary barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Richardson) is released from hospital following a long period recovering from a heart attack. His physician, Dr. Harrison (Copley), insists he must he attended by the bossy Nurse Plimsoll (Kerr) to make sure he takes care of himself: no booze, no cigars, no “female companionship,” no exciting legal cases—just dull civil ones, involving issues like conveyancing.

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Mayhew (David Langton) and Vole (Beau Bridges) come calling on Sir Wilfred.

Much to the dismay of Plimsoll, Sir Wilfred is persuaded by solicitor Mayhew (Langton) to take on the case of Leonard Vole (Bridges), who’s likely soon to be charged with the murder of wealthy middle-aged widow Emily French (Leslie), whose corpse has been discovered by her companion Janet Mackenzie (Hiller). Compounding Vole’s difficulties us that, not long before her death, French altered her will in his favor . . . to the tune of £80,000 (maybe £1 million today).

To be accurate, Sir Wilfred initially refuses the case, dragooning colleague Brogan-Moore (Vernon) to take it over in his place; however, after Vole has been arrested in Sir Wilfred’s chambers by the eager Chief Inspector Hearne (Mills), and after Sir Wilfred has been introduced to Vole’s alluring if very chilly German wife Christine (Rigg)—even had lunch with her in London’s celebrated Wig & Pen Club—the elderly barrister changes his mind. This is no surprise, because we know at once that Christine is an expert manipulator:

“I’ve heard you described as the champion of the hopeless cause. Perhaps this cause is too hopeless.”

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Chief Inspector Hearne (Frank Mills) arrests Vole in Sir Wilfred’s chambers.

Sir Wilfred decides to defend Vole but not to call Christine as a witness for the defense because wives’ testimonies supporting their husbands’ alibis tend not to carry too much weight in court. Imagine his consternation when prosecuting counsel Myers (Pleasence) calls Christine instead as a witness for the prosecution.

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Sir Wilfred (Ralph Richardson) is nonplussed by his first meeting with Christine (Diana Rigg).

Christine claims that she’s not really Christine Vole but Christine Helm, because in the postwar German hell from which Vole rescued her she was married to one Otto Helm—she has never loved Vole and she believes Helm to be alive. In the witness box she comprehensively refutes every single element of the alibi Vole had put forward to show he must be innocent.

It looks as if tomorrow will see Vole convicted and condemned to death.

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There’s a solid performance from Donald Pleasence as Prosecutor Myers.

But that evening Sir Wilfred receives a phone call from a mystery cockney woman who promises, assuming he can stump up sufficient cash, to give him evidence that’ll scupper Christine’s testimony. Despite his doctor’s orders, Sir Wilfred meets the woman in her scuzzy apartment in a Tilbey Street tenement. She claims that the adulterous Christine stole her boyfriend Max, who mutilated the mystery woman’s face when she caught them in flagrante delicto. She sells Sir Wilfred some love letters Christine sent to Max; one of these describes how Christine will sell out Vole from the witness box so that she and Max may live the life of Riley on the inheritance Vole received from Mrs. French.

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Sir Wilfred’s clerk, Carter (Peter Sallis), watches court proceedings apprehensively.

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The judge (Michael Gough) is ever ready with a witticism.

Even before Christine’s court appearance, Sir Wilfred was skeptical about the merit of any contribution she might make to her husband’s cause:

Mayhew: “It’s really rather touching the way he counts on his wife.”
Sir Wilfred: “Like a drowning man clutching at a razor blade.”

So the evidence of the letters comes as no great surprise to him; he’s already convinced his client is innocent and has been framed.

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Brogan-Moore (Richard Vernon) becomes little more than a spectator. That’s David Langton as Mayhew behind him.

Filled as it is with evocative shadows, mystery and uncertainty, the scene during which Sir Wilfred interrogates the scarred woman and purchases the letters is the noirish highlight of Wilder’s 1957 original—it almost persuaded me to include the movie in A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, despite its being primarily a courtroom drama. What I hadn’t realized until I watched this remake was how much the scene benefited from being in black-and-white. Wilder and his cinematographer, Russell Harlan, used the illusion that black-and-white offers an accurate depiction of the full-color real world to persuade us that what we saw on screen was what Wilfred saw among the shadows. In this context the indistinctness of the mystery woman’s features, and the consequent difficulty he’d have in recognizing her, seemed perfectly plausible.

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The mystery woman shows Sir Wilfred her scaaaar.

Done in color, though, the cinematographers’ subterfuge is far more obvious. Since shadows alone can’t effect a complete disguise, another stratagem is used. Until the final revelation of the hideously scarred face, the mystery woman is constantly in fluid motion, especially her head, so that it’s difficult for us to see her features. The trouble is that this motion is patently artificial; no one would behave like this in real life, and, if they did, the immediate reaction of anyone in the room with them—particularly a crusty old curmudgeon like Sir Wilfred—would be to snap, “Oh, for god’s sake! Keep still!”

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Christine (Diana Rigg) — now as Christen Helm — in the witness box.

Similarly, Sir Wilfred’s “monocle test” (he uses reflected sunlight from his monocle to cast a sort of spotlight into the face of someone he’s interrogating, and reckons he can tell by their reactions whether they’re telling the truth or not), which seems merely cheesy in the original movie, comes across as downright silly here. Vole is “honest” because he doesn’t flinch from the light shining in his eye; Christine is “dishonest” because she sensibly draws a curtain to block out the sun and thus thwart Sir Wilfred’s puerile prank. Why neither of them did what any normal person would do—raise a hand to shield their eyes—is a mystery.

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Sir Wilfred (Ralph Richardson) has a silly monocle test that he uses to evaluate people’s honesty.

These minor quibbles aside there’s a great deal to recommend about this remake—or homage, as it’s tempting to describe it. As noted, Deborah Kerr’s turn as Nurse Plimsoll is terrific—almost too good, in fact, because it’s not just Sir Wilfred who wants to wring the woman’s neck to shut her up, but us too. Diana Rigg fulfills her role not so much by playing Christine as by playing Dietrich playing Christine, but that’s no bad thing—especially if we view the piece as an homage. Beau Bridges is surprisingly good as the supposed innocent at large, Peter Sallis, as Sir Wilfred’s clerk Carter, is as always wonderful, and Wendy Hiller is equally fine as the victim’s hard-of-hearing Scottish companion, Janet Mackenzie—all the way down the cast list, in fact, there are good performances, even in the tiny parts; I was especially taken by Patricia Leslie as the gullible widow and Primi Townsend as the woman who sits next to Nurse Plimsoll in court, Diana, who proves to be more a part of the story than we expected.

Capping them all is Ralph Richardson, quite splendid as the cranky, wilful old barrister; he makes the part as much his own as did Charles Laughton in the original, and I’d be hard-pressed to judge which is the better of the two performances.

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Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfred, in action in the courtroom.

The movie was aired on December 4 1982; within less than a year (October 10 1983) Richardson was dead. This wasn’t his final screen role, however, since before his death he finished shooting for some later theatrical features, the last of them being Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), in which he played Tarzan’s grandfather.

I sat down to watch this with no higher expectation than that it might be an interesting curio, a minor offering to set alongside Wilder’s earlier adaptation in my own mental filing cabinet, and was delighted to discover that, despite the perhaps unavoidable flaws I’ve noted, it’s a movie very well worth watching in its own right.

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Poor Diana (Primi Townsend) sees her lover struck down.

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18 thoughts on “Witness for the Prosecution (1982 TVM)

    • I was thinking exactly that when reading the cast list at the top — how nice not to have any stunt casting of a big name who’s horribly out of their depth or having the story reworked to fit some rising star who wants a feature role to boost their profile and ego. Just great actors and Diana Rigg doing their job well…aaaah, those were the days…

  1. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this version as those screenshots of Diana Rigg seem very familiar. How interesting to hear about the forthcoming adaptations too. The BBC adaptation sounds like it might be destined for the Christmas schedules – I shall keep an eye out for it!

    • I’m pretty sure I first saw this around the time it first aired — not just anything with Diana Rigg in it got watched by me at that age but because, as with yourself, there was a certain recurring feeling of familiarity as I watched it a few weeks ago. Of course, it’s possible I was conflating memories of the Billy Wilder version, but I don’t think so.

      I too am looking forward to the imminent BBC adaptation! Fingers crossed it gets picked up over here pronto, although I’m not overwhelmingly optimistic.

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  3. Not as polished as the 1957 film, but fun nevertheless. I actually prefer the cast of the 1982 version. Richardson is warmer than Laughton, and he, unlike Laughton, looks as he is about to drop dead at any moment. Rigg is a class act! I actually think Bridges was better than Power. Kerr is delightful. All that’s missing is Billy Wlder’s smooth hand. I love both movies!

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