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Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Wrong Box (1966)

Director: Bryan Forbes
Stars: John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers

The names don't quit in this hand drawn psychedelic title sequence, which may explain why it's so long. It does seem like every comedian in England was hired to back up serious actors John Mills and Ralph Richardson but because of their sheer numbers they don't all get much screen time, some of them very little indeed. Firstly though we find out what a tontine is, because it's crucial to our plot. Twenty children enter the tontine, or rather are entered into it by their parents or guardians, who put in five thousand British pounds a piece. A tontine is like a lottery, so will be paid in full to the last survivor. Of course, as they're all children, it's not likely to be paid out for a long time, and so will increase in value considerably until the time that it's needed.

In short vignettes, we see them die off, at advancing ages: in war, hunting, exploration or pure idiocy. One is shot in a duel, even though he was only officiating, and one is even beheaded by accident by Queen Victoria who was trying to knight him at the time. In short shrift, there are only two of the twenty left, the brothers Masterman and Joseph Finsbury, in the more than able forms of John Mills and Ralph Richardson respectively. These brothers haven't spoken to each other for forty years even though they live next door. They're old men now but they're both going strong, even though Masterman seems to have been dying for years and affects a bedridden status that isn't remotely needed.

Masterman is more than eager to hasten his brother's demise by any means necessary and has him summoned home from Bournemouth to that end, but in true slapstick fashion fails at every step. By this time, though, other wheels are in motion. Joseph has three orphans in his charge, two of which are with him in Bournemouth, trying to keep him alive in any way they can while putting up with his hobby of collecting facts and boring everyone else to death with them. They're Morris and John, played by Pete and Dude or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore for anyone of the more recent couple of generations. John spends most of his time seducing everyone he meets, but Morris is a plotter and he's determined to win that tontine for himself through his 'uncle' Joseph.

Meanwhile back in London, Masterman's 'grandson' Michael is a decent fellow who lusts after Joseph's 'niece' Julia from afar and she after him, though both are really orphans. This incident enables the pair of them to finally meet and they fall madly in love through a slew of slow motion romance scenes that fit Nanette Newman perfectly as Julia but would seem a little stranger for Michael Caine as Michael. He's a joyously calm medical student, even when he's flustered. She's paranoid of being molested by criminals, but seems rather eager to be molested by Michael.

What follows is a joyous romp of slapstick farce. While Masterman is trying to kill his brother, Morris and John believe he's already died in a train collision and so are trying to hang on until Masterman dies so that they can claim the tontine through a fake death certificate. From this point both Masterman and Joseph both apparently dying a number of times, both through accidental identification and by deliberate subterfuge. We get what appears to be every permutation of confusion possible until it takes Tony Hancock to untangle it all at the graveside.

The Wrong Box was written back in 1889 by no less a literary figure than Robert Louis Stevenson, author of many famous novels including Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all of which have been adapted many times for the screen. One of three collaborations with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box was only filmed once, though the cast chosen includes enough major names to fill three versions. Perhaps the age of the story is what prompted Bryan Forbes to employ the occasional title card like a chapter heading here and there.

Mills and Richardson are both outstanding. Both were known as serious actors, among the greatest England has ever produced, but here they both show deft comedic talent in the most esteemed company. Pete and Dud were already stars of the stage through Beyond the Fringe and so it's hardly surprising to find them playing off each other so well. Michael Caine, playing the straight man here, was at a huge point of his career, coming off Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie, this being a pleasant change of pace, I'd imagine. Nanette Newman was eminently qualified for the film merely by virtue of being married to its director, but she happens also to be spot on as Miss Julie.

So many other names deserve mention, even excluding names like Nicholas Parsons, Valentine Dyall and Leonard Rossiter who are among the first batch of nine names crossed off the tontine and so get about five seconds of screen time each. Wilfred Lawson is a riot as Masterman's butler who hasn't been paid for five years but continues working nonetheless. He manages to steal almost every scene he's in, regardless of who he's playing opposite. There's also Tony Hancock as a detective, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and others. Wherever you look, there's a face recognisable from British film or television.

Truly unable to be ignored is Peter Sellers, as a senile and unscrupulous doctor with a wild collection of cats. Even if you haven't seen him in any one of his other hilarious roles, you couldn't fail to see how well he played Dr Pratt here, given how his performance affected Peter Cook, the only actor he appears on screen with. Sellers obviously made Cook laugh, to the degree that Forbes apparently couldn't get a cut without him doing so. Given that Cook has been described by no less a comedian as Stephen Fry as 'the funniest man who ever drew breath,' that's some achievement.

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