This neglected little film is based on a one-act play by John Mortimer, the creator of “Rumpole of the Bailey,” and it extends some scenes (particularly the flashbacks to the lives of both the barrister and the accused) in ways that add little but running time. Beryl Reid, a very distinguished British stage actress, is given a role that requires her to do almost nothing but laugh hysterically. Oddly enough, the expansion of the script makes it feel even more theatrical than cinematic.
The real reasons to see this “Trial and Error” (aka “The Dock Brief”) are the performances of Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough. The latter was one of England’s great character actors before he became a director and a Lord. Here, hidden behind a putty nose, he delivers an impeccable performance as a mediocre little man who kills his wife for a bit of quiet. And this was the period – just before head-turning international fame struck – when Sellers was offering one miraculous performance after another. His barrister is a subtle blend of self-delusional bluster and frightened awareness of his own inadequacy; the delicacy of this performance, especially the love he seems to feel for this little man who might prove his salvation, is a joy to behold. And the very last shot of the film, just before the final credits, made me laugh out loud – very silly, yet absolutely right.