#10 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
Billy Wilder and Agatha Christie, a match no one expected but was eminently welcome once it arrived. From Christie’s stage play, Wilder created a fun, energetic, and rather unpredictable courtroom drama with wonderful characters, anchored by the great performance by Charles Laughton.
Laughton plays Sir Wilfred Roberts, a barrister in London having just returned to work after suffering a heart attack. Tailed by his doting and nagging nurse, played by Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester, Sir Wilfred is trying to get back to his old life of smoking, eating whatever he wants, and practicing criminal law, but everything is in his way. He can’t sneak his cigars around, all his hiding spots are found out. His eating is tightly regimented. And his partners in his firm have allotted him only the most mundane of briefs from which to work.
Salvation comes in the form of one Leonard Vole, a man soon to be accused of murder of an old lady he had grown acquainted with. One thing this movie does really well is the handling of flashbacks. It embraces it to tell the story of how Vole met Mrs. Emily Jane French. How he endeared himself to her with his egg beater invention, antagonized her maid with the same thing, and gained a certain comradery. We also see, in flashback, how Leonard and his wife Christine met in Germany after the end of the war (in what could almost be an extension of Marlene Dietrich’s character’s story from A Foreign Affair). And yet, that’s where the flashbacks end. We never see the crime actually committed. We don’t see dramatizations of people’s testimonies in court, we only see the individuals give the testimonies.
Wilder had to create a lot outside of the courtroom that wasn’t in the original play, but he had this reputation of using source material as mere starting points instead of actual blueprints for his film. There was nothing stopping him from using flashbacks in the courtroom, but he didn’t do it. I think it’s because he understood how visual representations work within an audience’s mind. If we see an event happening on screen, we’re willing to believe it actually happened within the context of the story more than someone just speaking about an event. This is the secret to Rashomon‘s great artistic success (seeing the several stories instead of just hearing them).
Anyway, the trial is full of the dramatic turns that one would expect from a Hollywood film built around a trial. There are last second reveals, witnesses, and evidence that pop up just in the nick of time. The standout is the cockney woman who brings Sir Wilfred to a dingy railroad bar where she hands him dozens of letters written by Christine to a lover who is not her husband. This new evidence is used to overcome Christine’s harmful evidence given in court and free Leonard.
Ah, but there are more twists to come! The final scene was clouded in secrecy. It changes the ending of the play, involves no one but our primary characters, and comes to a dramatic conclusion that’s pretty difficult to predict. I do have a slight problem with this ending because Leonard essentially becomes another person once it begins, but that could be explained as him being a complete psychopath, which would fit the story well enough.
The movie’s a twisting and turning fun time with winning leads and very well written dialogue. Despite most of the film taking place on a single set, it never feels claustrophobic and moves with great speed.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4