Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is a highly renowned barrister at London’s Old Bailey. He is also an old curmudgeon, well-loved for his often humorous irascibility, a crusty ploy for hiding his too soft heart. He has been sent home from the hospital to convalesce after suffering a heart attack. “He was not discharged, you know, he was expelled. For conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient,” said his over-weening nurse, the delightful Miss Pimsoll. This imperious part was played by Elsa Lancaster, who was also the real-life wife of our star Charles Laughton. Their cutting thrust and parry duels for control and supremacy keeps the air electric with laughter and anticipation as Laughton cadges forbidden cigars from his fellow defense attorney and secretly substitutes his thermos of cocoa for alcoholic spirits.
This Agatha Christie short-story/play encompasses the circumstances surrounding the murder of a wealthy aging widow, Mrs.Emily French (Norma Varden). The accused is an affable and charming hustler of original inventions, Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power, which is, in fact, his final role. He died in 1958. I would never have recognized him without seeing the names of the cast and this may have been his best role ever. I was never a Tyrone Power fan.
When Laughton first meets the murder suspect , the barrister proceeds to draw Vole into his small conspiracy of vice. Vole does so well, the sly old fox tells him he has great criminal tendencies. “Thank you,” says Vole.
One witness for the prosecution is Mrs. French’s housekeeper, a suspicious and crusty old Scots woman who despised Vole from the moment he walked into their lives with his new eggbeater invention. When Sir Wilfrid suggests she is antagonistic toward Vole, her riposte is in the positive/negative. “Oh, I’m not untignistic to him,” she said. “He’s a shiftless, scheming rascal. But I’m not untignistic to him.” Her droll ignorance and asides to the judge about taking a pattern to her niece on the night of the murder are priceless. She complains about the microphone. She complains about the fact that her national health insurance hasn’t sent the hearing aid she needs, and tries to enlist his lordship to intervene on her behalf, to which the beleaguered and bewigged Old Bailey judge replies, ” My dear, Mrs. McKensie, Considering the rubbish that is talked nowadays, you are missing very little.”
Marlene Dietrich plays Vole’s wife, Christine, a war bride whom he rescued from the shambles of Germany. In a courtroom flip-switch, Christine becomes a witness for the prosecution. Her icy demeanor in the witness-box, and the blow-by-blow between her and Sir Wilfrid until she breaks into shrieking invective, fairly sizzles as it rocks the courtroom, and turns Vole into a shocked defendant walled within the prisoner’s dock.
Between the fascinating and vibrant characters of this colorful Billy Wilder black-and-white, and the intense and sometimes despairing search for an illusive truth, there is not an empty moment between the opening presentation and the heart-stopping, explosive finale. A must-see for anyone’s tastes. It is now on my top ten favorites list of all-time best movies.