Filmsite Movie Review
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Preparations for the Trial - Details About Leonard's and Christine's Past:

Before the trial opened, Leonard had been held in jail for two weeks. When visited by Mr. Mayhew and Wilfrid, a grateful Leonard thanked Wilfrid for representing him. The ailing barrister claimed that his doctors had agreed to let him work on the case, but were planning to exile him to Bermuda once it was over.

A photograph was taken of Leonard with the overcoat he had worn the night of the murder. Upset and on the verge of breaking down, Leonard asked why Christine hadn't visited him in jail. Wilfrid read the report of the testimony of Janet MacKenzie, Mrs. French's housekeeper, who claimed that Vole helped Mrs. French with her business affairs, including her complicated income tax returns, and presumably advised her to revise her will. Leonard denied helping her: ("If Janet said that, she's lying. She was always against me, I don't know why!"). Leonard also admitted to cutting his wrist while slicing bread with a knife two days after the murder - an incident witnessed by Christine.

The conversation turned to how Christine and Leonard had met in the past - seen in flashback:

  • in Germany in 1945, Leonard was stationed outside Hamburg with an Royal Air Force (RAF) maintenance unit, part of the occupation forces in Germany at the time; while on a weekend pass but still wearing his uniform, he entered a Hamburg, Germany bar where a beer-hall cabaret actress-performer (Christine Helm) was singing: "I May Never Go Home Anymore" and accompanying herself on an accordian; a fight broke out after a drunken and aggressive Sergeant ripped Christine's trousers to look at her left leg; the military police entered to break up the brawl, but Leonard hid (along with his shot glass) and avoided arrest
  • Leonard was able to speak to her and offered to help her find her accordian, and he gave her a cigarette, gum and a tin of Brazilian coffee; he was invited to her dark, structurally-unstable cellar room to brew up two hot drinks; she lied to him that she wasn't married (and claimed she wore a wedding ring to avoid unwelcome overtures); she exchanged two kisses for the two cups of coffee and then more passionate kisses for other breakfast foods (with the memorable question and answer: Leonard: "How are you fixed for sugar?", Christine: "I could use some")
  • he jumped onto her cot and everything unexpectedly collapsed onto him, including the ceiling; she kissed his bruised head to make him feel better [Note: The image of her draped over him was pictured on many of the film's posters.]
  • soon after, even though she was, in fact, married to a German man (now living in East Germany in the Russian Zone) in 1942 named Otto Ludwig Helm, she married Leonard three years later, and escaped from Germany to happily live in England with him in a small rented flat

After Leonard's lengthy version of his earliest acquaintance with Christine, Wilfrid insisted he wouldn't put Christine on the witness box to testify, arguing that English as her second-language might be a weakness: "The prosecution could easily trip her up." Before being taken away, Leonard reacted with fear and begged for Wilfrid to allow her to provide exculpatory evidence: ("I can't face this without Christine. I tell you, I'm scared. I need her. Without her, I'm sunk"). Wilfrid thought that Leonard's pleas were desperate: "Like a drowning man clutching at a razor blade."

The Opening of the Trial in Old Bailey:

As the trial opened, Leonard pleaded "NOT GUILTY" to the charge of murdering 56 year-old Emily Jane French on the 14th day of October in the county of London, between 9:30-10:00 pm "by a blow from a blunt and heavy instrument." The Crown's prosecution team was led by Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher), and the defence was to be conducted by Sir Wilfrid and Brogan-Moore, although Sir Wilfrid had missed the opening moments due to being incapacitated with an attending doctor. He was suffering from high blood pressure and was being prescribed regular medications (nitroglycerine tablets) and calcium injections daily. He was allowed to bring in a flask of cocoa - at the last minute switched by Carter for one filled with brandy, to hide it from Miss Plimsoll who sat in the spectator's gallery.

A series of witnesses were to be called:

  • Chief Inspector Hearne from the Scotland Yard
  • Mrs. French's housekeeper Janet MacKenzie
  • Police Constable Jeffries
  • other medical and laboratory experts
  • Mrs. French's Solicitor Mr. Stokes, who drew up her revised will

Once Sir Wilfrid arrived, he objected to some of the "opinions" and "leading questions" rather than facts being postulated by Mr. Myers during Hearne's testimony. According to Hearne, a single blow to the head caused instantaneous death, somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. The fingerprints of Mrs. French, Janet MacKenzie and Leonard Vole were found. The room had the appearance that a robbery had occurred, although nothing was missing. The jacket found in Leonard's flat, after testing for bloodstains, confirmed human bloodstains (with Type O blood, Mrs. French's blood-type) that were attempted to be washed out.

When Wilfrid cross-examined the witness, he caused some doubt by mentioning that a robber might have worn gloves. He also stated how the bloodstains may have come from Leonard himself (also with Type O blood), who had testified earlier - with his wife as a witness, that he had cut his wrist with a razor-sharp knife while slicing bread in his own household.

During Janet MacKenzie's testimony, she said that she had been the companion-housekeeper for the deceased Mrs. French for the previous 10 years, but now was forced to live with her niece, only a five minute walk away from the French residence. On her night off, the fateful October 14th, she left the house at 7:30 pm, but then slipped back into the house to retrieve a dress pattern at 9:25 pm in her upstairs room. She claimed that she heard Leonard and Mrs. French "talkin' and laughin'" in the sitting room. Then after returning to her niece's place for a few hours, she arrived back at around 10:40 pm and discovered the dead Mrs. French. Conjectures by Janet about Mrs. French's knowledge of Leonard's marriage were not allowed.

However, the most damning evidence was presented when she affirmed that she had also overheard Mrs. French call her solicitor Mr. Stokes to have "her old will revoked and a new one drawn up," while Leonard was present. According to her, on October 8th, she had heard them discussing the revised will: "He was to have all her money, she told him, as she had no near relations nor anybody that meant to her what he did."

During cross-examination, Sir Wilfrid was able to have Janet admit that she had been Mrs. French’s major beneficiary: ("the bulk of Mrs. French's estate") in the previous will. But once it was revoked, her bequest was reduced to "a small annuity," while Leonard became the "principal beneficiary." Sir Wilfried thus established that Janet's "antagonistic" attitude toward the "prisoner" was understandable. Janet even called Leonard a "shiftless, schemin' rascal." In addition, Sir Wilfrid also established that when she was eavesdropping on their conversation through the closed, thick solid-oak sitting room door, that due to her ongoing hearing problems (and order for a hearing aid that she had not yet received), it would have been difficult for her to positively identify Leonard's voice. In fact, Mrs. French might have been watching TV as she often did in the evenings, although Janet claimed the TV was away for repairs that week.

The "Surprise Witness" Testimony for the Prosecution by Leonard's Own 'Wife' - Christine Helm:

On the third day of the trial, Sir Wilfrid was completely stunned when Christine Helm was called to the stand by the prosecution as a "surprise witness" - their final witness. Although she couldn't be called to testify on behalf of her husband to defend him, now she had agreed to provide evidence against her 'husband' Leonard Vole. She had become a "witness for the prosecution" to damningly testify against him and cold-heartedly betray her "husband." On the stand:

  1. Christine confirmed that she wasn't really legally married to Leonard (and could therefore testify against him); her marriage to Leonard was never valid, and she was still married to Helm; she produced proof - a certificate of marriage to Otto Ludwig Helm in 1942
  2. Christine claimed that she was forced by Leonard to provide a false alibi to police about his whereabouts and the timing of his return (she claimed he had actually returned at 10:10 pm, although Leonard had pressured her to say that he had returned at 9:25 pm)
  3. he was breathing hard and excited when he returned home, and told her to wash the blood off the cuffs of his coat (claiming he had cut his wrist)
  4. the evening of the murder, she asked Leonard: "What have you done?", and Leonard confessed the murder to her: "I've killed her!" -- "It was that woman he had been going to see so often"
  5. when questioned by police, she lied and told them what Leonard had asked her to say, that he had returned at 9:25 pm - she was lying due to her gratitude to him for saving her, marrying her, and taking her to England: ("Because Leonard asked me to say that...I said to the police what he wanted me to say because I'm grateful to him")

Leonard broke down twice during the damning testimony and tried to counteract Christine's allegations: "Christine, what are you saying? It's not true. You know it's not true!...Christine! Why are you lying? Why are you saying these things?" Now, she vowed that she had to tell the truth about Leonard's guilt: "I cannot go on lying to save him." She also firmly stated: "I never loved him." Christine made a final statement about how she wanted to be truthful, and not be made an "accomplice to murder":

"That woman, she was a harmless old fool, and he makes of me an accomplice to the murder. I cannot come into court and swear that he was with me at the time when it was done. I cannot do it! I cannot do it!"

When cross-examined by Sir Wilfrid, he accused her of committing perjury for much of her life. She was not even a credible witness for the prosecution, and he clearly was able to establish her life-long pattern of deceptive lying:

  • she lied to Leonard about her marital status
  • she also lied to the authorities in arranging the marriage and during the ceremony
  • she lied to the police when questioned about the timing of Leonard's visit the night of the murder
  • she also lied about Leonard accidentally cutting his wrist

One of the film's most memorable moments was Sir Wilfrid's outburst at Christine for her habitual perjuring:

"The question is, Frau Helm, were you lying then, are you lying now? Or are you not, in fact, a chronic and habitual liar?"

Christine was summarily dismissed by Sir Wilfrid from the stand: "I doubt if anything is to be gained by questioning you any further. That will be all, Frau Helm." However, he asked that her testimony be considered as a prosecution witness, even though she was completely unreliable:

"I objected to her testimony because a wife cannot give evidence harmful to her husband. But it has been proven that her marriage to Leonard Vole was fraudulent and bigamous. Therefore, her evidence must be admitted and you must consider it. For what it is worth. Such is the prosecution's case."

Sir Wilfrid's Defense - Leonard Vole on the Witness Stand:

With only circumstantial evidence presented through testimony from the various witnesses, Sir Wilfrid decided to only briefly call Leonard to speak on his own behalf. He asked just one crucial question: "Leonard Stephen Vole, did you or did you not on the night of October the 14th last, murder Emily Jane French?" When Leonard denied being the murderer, Sir Wilfrid ended his examination with this conclusion:

"The prisoner has endured three days of the most profound mental agony and shock. The defence feels his faculties should be spared for the cross-examination by my learned friend for the prosecution."

However, Mr. Meyer proceeded with a detailed, harsh cross-examination of Leonard, and was able to uncover some new incriminating implications:

  • Leonard stated that he had very little money when he first met Mrs. French, and didn't expect to receive any from her
  • Leonard also said that he was unaware that her rewritten will had made him her main beneficiary of £ 80,000
  • during his last visit with her on the night of her murder, Leonard admitted that he was wearing a trench coat and a brown hat; a photograph taken of Leonard wearing the coat and hat had been circulated, with hopes of a witness coming forward to identify him, but no one had come forward who had seen him on the actual night of Mrs. French's death
  • Leonard was asked about visiting a travel agency on October 8th "with a clinging brunette" (not Mrs. French) and although he had no money, he had inquired about luxury foreign cruises accompanied by the "affectionate" young woman; this was the afternoon of the same day that Mrs. French had rewritten her will, one week before her death; so it was surmised that he was already making plans to dispose of her expected income; Vole denied the charges, and vowed he had never thought of killing anyone or inheriting anything:
    • "I was in a pub and I met this girl. I don't even remember her name now. We had a couple of drinks and we walked out together. And we passed that display window and saw those fancy posters, all blue seas and palm trees - Grecian isles or some such place. So we went in, just for fun and I started asking for folders. Well, the man gave me a sort of a funny look because I did look a bit shabby. Anyway, it irritated me, so I kept asking for the swankiest tours, all deluxe and cabin on the boat deck, but it was just putting on an act!...It was make-believe and childish, but it was fun and I enjoyed it. I never thought of killing anyone or of inheriting any money"
  • when asked why his "wife" Christine would testify against him, he only surmised: "She must have been lying or out of her mind...I don't understand it. Oh, God! What's happened? What's changed her?"
  • and finally, when asked about the allegation of blood on his hands, Vole claimed again that he had accidentally cut his wrist, steadfastly professed that he was innocent, and begged for everyone to believe his version of the night of October 14th: "You've got to believe me. You've got to believe me!... I didn't do it! I didn't kill her! I never killed anybody! God, it's like a nightmare. Some ghastly, horrible dream."

Reviewing the Case:

That evening, Sir Wilfrid was with Mr. Mayhew and Brogan-Moore discussing the day's testimony of the two main witnesses in his office-study. Brogan-Moore thought it would be over soon: "It seems too open-and-shut." Wilfrid observed: "I watched them when Frau Helm was on the stand. They didn't like her." However, Brogan-Moore disagreed: "No, they didn't like her, but they believed her. They liked Leonard Vole but they didn't believe him." Brogan-Moore was unsure whether Christine had lied or not, but Sir Wilfrid was certain she had - but wondered why:

"She lied. Whether she calls it Meineid or perjury, she lied. The only question in my mind is why. What's her game? What is she up to? What?"

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