Ralph Richardson in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1982)

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You wait decades for a new adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution and then two turn up at the same time …..

Both the BBC and Hollywood are mounting their own versions, although the BBC’s is an adaptation of Christie’s original short story (hence the reason why it’s referred to as The Witness for the Prosecution) whilst the American film looks set to be a remake of Billy Wilder’s 1957 film.

The Witness for the Prosecution was originally published in 1925.  Although it was a brief story, the dénouement clearly pleased Christie as she developed the concept into a full stage-play (dropping the The from the title) in 1953.  Four years later it was filmed by Billy Wilder, featuring an impressive cast (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton).  The film added the sub-plot of Sir Wilfred’s delicate health, but otherwise it was a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s play (including the ending, which she’d tweaked a little from the original short story).

Since the BBC are adapting the original story, presumably they will reinstate that ending, which would be a good move as it carries much more of a punch than the later play/film conclusion.  Or will they decide to tinker with it?  Time will tell …..

The 1980’s saw a rash of American TV movie adaptations of Agatha Christie stories.  Peter Ustinov reprised his big-screen role as Hercule Poirot, Helen Hayes made several appearances as Miss Marple (although she was always on a hiding to nothing, as Joan Hickson’s definitive portrayal at around the same time wiped the floor with her).   There were also a few one-offs (in addition to Witness, Bill Bixby stumbled his way through Murder is Easy whilst Anthony Andrews headed the cast of Sparkling Cyanide).

The 1982 version of Witness is a slight oddity – as it’s very much a period piece (set in the 1950’s).  Most of the other 1980’s American Christie’s were firmly rooted in the present day, which gave us some incongruous moments, such as Poirot appearing on David Frost’s chat show!

Witness clearly had a very decent budget, as they were able to close down a few London streets (or maybe they simply ventured out very early in the morning) and sprinkle the roads with a number of vintage cars, which helps to sell the period illusion.  Although to be honest, since the main location of the story is a courtroom it wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference if the story had been updated to 1982.

John Gay’s adaptation of the original film screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz doesn’t deviate a great deal.  Sir Wilfred Robarts (Ralph Richardson) is still tetchy with everyone, but especially with the formidable Nurse Plimsoll (Deborah Kerr) who insists that, following his recent heart attack, he shouldn’t overexcite himself.

A juicy murder case, defending the personable Leonard Vole (Beau Bridges), is just the sort of thing she means, but Sir Wilfred ignores her and takes the case anyway, although he seems to be backing a loser.  There’s only circumstantial evidence which connects Vole to the murder of Emily French, but it’s still very damaging.  Vole’s wife Christie (Diana Rigg) provides her husband with a solid alibi, but then she changes her mind and becomes a witness for the prosecution ….

The casting of Beau Bridges as Leonard Vole is an interesting one.  Director Alan Gibson was clearly following the path taken by Wilder’s film which had also cast an American actor, Tyrone Power, as Vole.  It’s easy to see why the original film (and indeed the 1982 tv remake) did so – an American lead would help to sell it in the US – but Bridges seems a little incongruous as the sole American amongst the British cast.

Ralph Richardson might lack the bite of Charles Laughton (Richardson gives his usual vague performance) but he’s still very watchable.  The rest of the cast are comprised of fine British players – Deborah Kerr, Donald Pleasance, Wendy Hillier, Diana Rigg, Richard Vernon, David Langton, Michael Gough, Peter Sallis, Peter Copley, Frank Mills – who help to enliven proceedings no end.

Sallis has the small role of Sir Wilfred’s loyal clerk Carter, but still manages to make something of it whilst Hillier is fine as Emily French’s loyal housemaid Janet Mackenize (whose testimony Sir Wilfred is able to ruthlessly disassemble).  Donald Pleasance and Richard Vernon are rather wasted, but it’s always a pleasure to see them anyway.  Diana Rigg had the imposing shoes of Marlene Dietrich to fill, but she was more than capable.  Given the theatrical origins of the play, it’s no surprise that Christine is a role that requires an actress to demonstrate their full histrionic range – although Rigg has enough self-control to avoid soaring too far over the top.

If you’ve never seen Wilder’s film, then this production should be an entertaining 100 minutes.  If you have, then it’s hard not to compare the two and decide that the 1982 remake comes up a little short (despite the best efforts of the experienced cast).  But having said that, it’s still really rather good and is well worth your time.

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