Billy Wilder’s 1957 courtroom drama defines–and thrives in–a space somewhere between Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity, between the fizz of humor and play of deception and more cold-blooded manipulation. It’s a clever confection of a film, so enjoyable from one moment to the next that you can almost miss how well-constructed it is. Of course, Wilder was working with good construction material: the original short story by Agatha Christie is, as is typical of Christie, a sleek little puzzle with all the clues hidden in plain sight. But even if you assume that the plot is more or less taken care of, what Wilder adds to the mix makes the pleasures of the adaptation exceed those of the (already memorable) source material.
The casting, in particular, is a marvel. Marlene Dietrich is coolly masterful as Christine, emanating so much controlled power that you can believe the strong and immediate impact she has on the other characters; when she needs to, she shows a kind of range that either shows that control to be an illusion–or reveals how bone-deep it really goes. Tyrone Power, as Christine’s husband, the accused murderer Leonard Vole, makes the most of his good looks and charm. As his legal team effectively summarizes it, the jury likes Leonard immediately–but they don’t trust him. Is he likable because he’s funny and good-natured, with an almost childlike sense of innocence and mischief? Or is he likable because he knows exactly what strings to pull, how to not only please but ingratiate himself, sliding into an inheritance of eighty thousand pounds? Dietrich and Power are two movie stars who are especially superb here at doing what movie stars must do in order to become stars–project and manage image–and the way they play Christine and Leonard imbues their characters with the same skill.
As good as Dietrich and Power both are, however, Charles Laughton is the key to making the film work: as barrister Sir Wilfrid, he’s the flesh-and-blood character at the heart of the story–larger than life, sure, but definite, not a symbol waiting for interpretation. He’s too much himself to be anything but trustworthy. Irascible, intelligent, and engaged: that’s all he needs to be for the sake of the plot. But Wilder and Laughton make him into someone vivid and specific, more character than caricature. He’s vulnerable, in ill health and needing emergency doses of medication, but he’s not letting that stop him from quaffing brandy under the pretense of it being mild, wholesome cocoa; he pauses to delight in his newly installed chair lift. He becomes someone both extremely intelligent and yet capable of being fooled, and if we’re fooled along with him, it’s a comfort that we’re in good company. Long after one is familiar with the movie’s various twists and revelations, the story still works because Sir Wilfrid is at the heart of it and his experience of it is dramatic enough–and sincere enough–to matter in its own right.