The seeds of crime bear bitter fruit

THE DOCK BRIEF AKA TRIAL AND ERROR is a legal comedy adapted from a play by John Mortimer (the Rumpole man) and starring Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough. We came for Sellers but stayed for Sir Dickie who, transfigured by ace makeup man Stuart Freeborn’s glue-on nose, plays a monkeylike Essex seed shop proprietor awaiting trial for the murder of his overly jocular wife (Beryl Reid, in flashback).

(I guessed, without having to check, that Freeborn must have assembled Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough’s nose for SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, the flaw in the plan being that SOAWA isn’t a comedy, and anyway Dickie’s naked nose would have been an ideal nose for that part, so one spends the film questioning the putty, surely not the effect intended.)

Sellers is doing the posh, patronising old duffer routine, and it’s nothing particularly challenging for him — shades of Grytpype-Thynne. But he bounces extremely well off Attenborough’s man without qualities, a dull fellow who can’t really process the fact of being on trial for murder, but is submissively keen to help this dignified gent if he possibly can. The two wonder in and out of flashbacks and fantasies, observing their earlier lives.

Sellers’ character has been a lawyer for forty years without ever obtaining a case, though, so their prospects of success seem slim.

The name of director James Hill rang only the dimmest of gongs, but he’s quite imaginative here — we pass from the prisoner’s cell to the court as seen in imagination in a single swift pan, as if the two rooms adjoined (I’ve praised this kind of invention before). When we see in flashback Attenborough finally cracking under the strain of his appalling wife, the camera rushes at her, jump-cuts back to the starting block, and has another go. Repeat several times as the woman cackles insanely. Reaction shot of Attenborough, with the camera literally trembling as if situated by an erupting volcano.

I looked Hill up — extraordinary career the man had. Well, curious, anyway. BORN FREE, A STUDY IN TERROR, CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY are three I’d seen. He’d just got free of the Children’s Film Foundation. Later, he alternated between animal flicks building on the success of his lion thing — AN ELEPHANT NAMED SLOWLY, THE BELSTONE FOX, BLACK BEAUTY — and utterly disparate genre fodder including a sex comedy (THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y. and a spy thriller (THE CORRUPT ONES). By 1975 he was back at the CFF. His last movie, a 1984 Channel 4 adaptation of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters (sic) seems to have vanished without trace. I’d like to see that one. Alec McCowan and Tracy Ullman? A must.

As good as Attenborough is, the film’s funniest element is David Lodge, hulking comic actor who was generally brought on to Sellers films to keep the difficult star happy. In this movie, he plays a humorous lodger brought into the household to keep the laughing wife happy. It’s Attenborough’s secret hope that she’ll run off with the fellow. Reid makes her “good-natured” character suitably nightmarish, but Lodge, a chuckling man-mountain, is infectious the moment the front door opens to reveal him. Maybe a malignly amused woman isn’t as funny as an innocently but horribly fatuous man. At any rate, he’s hilarious.

Actually, of the 102 films Lodge was in, only about 12 of them had Sellers as well, so Sellers and I were not his only admirers.

5 Responses to “The seeds of crime bear bitter fruit”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Mentioning Lodge brings up a whole word of British comedy players who aren’t stars or “Not Quite Stars” yet have major impact. I am thinking of James Booth. Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti

  2. Love them. British movies up until the seventies are like old Hollywood ones, thronging with wonderfully familiar faces and familiar schtick. John Le Mesurier was ubiquitous.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

  4. Judy Dean Says:

    So that’s how Grytpype-Thynne is spelt. Warmly remembered. Never seen written down.

  5. The Ys are a nice upper-class twit joke (“Smythe”) to amuse Milligan and his fellow writers alone, at least until a few scripts were published. I don’t know if the Radio Tymes ever published episode synopses or cast lists.

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