Director: Bryan Forbes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the 12 Movies I Need to See Meme, one of the films I put on my list was The Wrong Box. My memories of the Robert Louis Stevenson book, written with the wicked wit that the Scottish do so well, and the droll merriment that the comic geniuses that populated 1960s Britain made of it in the film had never left me. In its spectacular wisdom, TCM aired The Wrong Box a couple of weeks ago, where Yoda-wise host Robert Osborne declared it one of his favorite comedies of all time. My DVR went into action, and I saved it for just the right evening when the hubby and I were ready to laugh long and hard. While the film’s comedy was milder than I remembered, I have no regrets.
“A tontine is named for Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker,” we learn from Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson), a “pedantic bore,” in the words of his older brother Masterman (John Mills). A tontine was a winner-take-all type of investment that eventually was outlawed because it resulted in subscribers trying to murder each other to become the last one standing to collect the entire pot of money. Both Finsburys and a cadre of other sons of well-heeled Englishmen were enrolled in a tontine as boys. The ceremonious contracting of the tontine, showing the short legs of the beneficiaries dangling just above the floor, their proud fathers towering behind them, the solicitor intoning the terms of the tontine to the eager, occasionally malevolent faces of the youngsters opens the film. One by one, the boys grow and die, until only the Finsburys remain.
Masterman and Joseph haven’t spoken in 40 years despite living in adjoining London row houses. However, when Masterman, who has been on his death bed for at least a decade, learns that the only man besides Joseph who stands between him and the tontine fortune (£111,000 and change) has died, he sends his grandson Michael (Michael Caine) next door. Michael has nursed a crush from afar for his cousin Julia (Nanette Newman), who lives with Joseph and her cousins Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore). Julia entertains herself listening to lurid stories of murder in London’s low-rent districts and worrying continuously about her safety. When Michael comes to fetch Joseph, he must speak to Julia through the letter shoot at the bottom of the door because she refuses to open up. When she finally does, their mutually goofy attraction plays out among Morris’ egg collection. Michael praises his collection, but Julia intones, “I think they’re obscene.” Discovering that the Finsbury men of the house are vacationing in Bournemouth, Michael arranges to telegraph them and thanks Julia for awakening him from his ignorance on the inappropriateness of Morris’ eggs.
Morris and John are delighted to learn that their uncle is dying, and they and Joseph catch the first train back to London. Joseph has been kept on a short leash by the boys, who would do anything to keep him alive to collect the tontine. He slips away from them when the train goes into a tunnel, and ensconces himself in another compartment occupied by an intense man (Tutte Lemkow) furtively knitting where he can smoke in peace. When he sees he has entered a no-smoking compartment, Joseph excuses himself to go smoke in the lavatory. The man is the notorious Bournemouth Strangler; he steals Joseph’s topcoat and hat to make his escape from the train. Just then the train collides with another train. When Morris and John go searching for Joseph in the wreckage, they spy two feet sticking out of a bin dressed in uncle’s clothes. In order to claim the tontine, they must prevent anyone from finding out Joseph has died before Masterman. Morris goes to London to check on Masterman’s health and arrange a death certificate for Joseph to appear just after Masterman dies. John is charged with boxing up the body and shipping it to London for the delayed funeral. Naturally, the body gets switched in London, and all the shenanigans that comprise this switcheroo farce ensue right up to the final frame.
The cast of this film are universally superb. Ralph Richardson is perfectly oblivious as he rattles off fact after boring fact to various captive audiences, including a Good Samaritan who offers him a ride in his buggy after the train crash. Richardson’s character offers to pay the man, who demurs, “The pleasure of your company will be payment enough.” No good deed goes unpunished in this film. John Mills doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but his various attempts to kill Joseph when the latter comes to visit him on his presumed death bed allow for some delightful pratfalls.
Caine and Newman play the blushing innocents in the high theatrics of 19th century melodrama, improved by director Forbes’ ability to goose the laughs with close-ups. Julia sees Michael’s bare forearm after he has rolled up his sleeves to cart a large crate into her cellar. Cut between close-up of arm and Julia’s widening eyes. She flees from Michael and swoons in the parlor. Michael pursues her and spies her exposed ankle. Close up of ankle. Close up of Caine’s alarmed eyes. This sweetly funny sequence ends in the “well what were you waiting for” kiss we’ve been led to anticipate, followed by medical student Michael’s concern about inbreeding. Both, it turns out, are orphans who were adopted by the Finsburys. Julia says of her pater, “Oh, I only knew mine vaguely. My father was a missionary. He was eaten by his Bible class.” Forbes emphasizes the comedy of melodrama by inserting stylized title cards, designed by Robert Ellis, that mix Victorian ornamentation with a 60s pop feel.
Peter Cook, of whom my learned colleague Rod wrote so wisely in his very recent review of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), is perfectly unctuous as the pushy, greedy older brother to Dudley Moore’s perpetually-in-heat John. The pair plays well together, but aren’t really allowed to stretch the limits of the comic possibilities at their disposal, coming off as fussy rather than ferociously funny. Their best scene for me was a very physical one in which they attempt to keep the tontine solicitor from retrieving the box containing the tontine cash payout by falling all over themselves to haul it around a funeral in progress.
The two comic standouts are Peter Sellers as the disreputable Dr. Pratt, who provides Morris with the fake death certificate, and Wilfrid Lawson, who plays Masterman’s decrepit, old butler Peacock. The latter, a red-nosed, alcoholic geezer whose slurred speech is nearly incomprehensible, was, sadly, playing himself. Nonetheless, Peacock knows what’s going on around him and lurks perfectly with that gentle awareness of the lackey who has learned how to stay out of the line of fire. Sellers, of course, needs no salesmanship on my part. He’s utterly vague and distracted, surrounded by cats on every surface and in every drawer, and attempting to keep up appearances of professional propriety while upping his fee for the death certificate from five to ten shillings when Morris says that price is no object. When he signs the death certificate, Morris must call out the spelling of the doctor’s own name; Pratt blots the fresh ink with the back of a kitten he has stashed in his desk drawer, certainly an inspired bit of improvisation.
There are a great many more delights from the cast of hundreds that comprise The Wrong Box. I can only encourage you to pick up the right box and see for yourself.