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Do I look like the Bournemouth Strangler?

The Wrong Box
(1966)

(SPOILERS) In an essay accompanying The Wrong Box’s recent Blu-ray release, Louis Barfe tells how he first saw the film on TV before his family had a VCR, much to his distress. I was luckier in that regard, and as a result it was on regular rotation during the 1980s. An inevitability of such nostalgic attachments is that one becomes somewhat immune to a movie’s failings, but in The Wrong Box’s case I think revisiting it decades later reconfirms what I was always aware of to some extent: that it has numerous delightful distractions, but director Bryan Forbes isn’t able to lend it the focus of a strong through-line.


Indeed, while the contemporary reviews take the film apart much more than it deserves, they do accurately highlight that the best elements are around the edges, and as guided by Forbes, the adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne’s novel (by Americans Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove), in which surviving factions of a family fight it out to claim a tontine – an archaic investment scheme – established 63 years before, lacks the sustained zest and energy one might expect. 


There are clear signatures of Kind Hearts and Coronets, most notably in the introductory passage depicting the demises of various tontine members (including Nicholas Parsons, Leonard Rossiter, Jeremy Lloyd and Valentine Dyall), but the substance of the picture relates to mix-ups and mistaken identities, never quite becoming as deliriously farcical as they should be. 


Morris (Peter Cook) and John Finsbury (Dudley Moore) think their uncle Joseph (Ralph Richardson) has expired. So, believing Joseph’s brother Masterman (John Mills) is likely to pop his clogs himself any day now, they decide to delay the announcement in order to claim the tontine themselves. Joseph is not dead, however, and the body they secrete in a barrel is actually that of the Bournemouth Strangler (Tutte Lemkow). 


Michael: Thank you for the tea and cakes. I shall taste them all through my dissection class.

Filling out the line-up of familial players are Masterman’s grandson Michael (Michael Caine) and Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman, Forbes’ wife); these two become smitten in an amusingly coy, mannered fashion (they live next door to each other but have never spoken until the events in the picture, nor has Michael with Morris and John; Michael and Julia are also not really, and very conveniently, cousins, so can be cheerfully incestuous with each other); Forbes emphasises the period formality and etiquette by flashing up quaint silent era cue cards at intervals (“The Girl He Worships From Afar”). Their mutual joy at the tragic deaths of their parents is perfectly delivered ("My father went missing. He was eaten by his Bible class” as was her mother “They never eat one without the other”; Caine’s were killed in a balloon ascension, which again sounds rather Kind Hears and Coronets). Another nice structural touch is that the scheming parties may cross generations but they are on opposite sides of the family; it’s Masterman who is trying to off the oblivious Joseph.


Morris: Who’s the butler?
Peacock: I have that honour, sir.
Morris: How dare you embrace me!

Amongst these much better-known faces is one who is absolutely hilarious and undeniably steals the entire movie whenever he’s on screen; owing to Wilfrid Lawson’s incredible delivery, Masterman’s butler Peacock sounds as if he’s on the verge of expiring at any moment. One might suggest he sounds as if he was pissed throughout, of which Michael Caine commented that the “ageing alcoholic” was “bombed out of his mind twenty-four hours per day, but he was still one of the most brilliant actors with whom I ever worked”, “that most British actor of them all” as he put it. 


Forbes referred to Lawson as “underestimated, unreliable, uninsurable and supremely gifted”; the actor died of a heart attack less than five months after the picture was release. It isn’t only Lawson’s line readings (“They’d never believe you” says Michael of Peacock volunteering to take the rap for the apparently dead Masterman; “Why not? After all, I haven’t been paid for seven years. Begging your pardon, sir”); his physical performance is a marvel, from his evident distress at Julia playing the piano to a terrified “No…” on seeing Masterman climbing out of a coffin on the back of a hearse.


When I used to watch the film, it was Cook & Moore and Sellers who kept me coming back to it, but this time I was more taken with Richardson’s sublimely self-involved portrait of Joseph, permanently caught up in his own world of dispensing crushingly banal factoids – the one about someone dying in London every 25 seconds being entirely inaccurate – to anyone he can get to listen to him; I was particularly struck by how effortlessly he acts Mills off the screen, the latter coated in old-age makeup doing his hammy best (or worst) to make an impression. The scene in which Masterman repeatedly tries and fails to kill his oblivious brother works entirely because of Richardson’s playing, rather than Mills telegraphing his every action.


Morris: You realise you made me drop my grebe?

That said, there’s much to be enjoyed about Cook and Moore’s presence – their film debut – although the latter is borderline irrelevant to the proceedings and saddled with a sex-mad characterisation that would resurface in his unlikely “sex thimble” burst of Hollywood stardom towards the end of the following decade (Moore said he found Forbes difficult to work with due to his habit of acting out what he wanted Dudley to do for him). Cook gets many of the best lines as an egg-mad conniver, giving it his best display of outward propriety and inward scheming (“Julia! Are you mad? A scream like that might have shattered my eggs!”), and since the value of the tontine is £111k (assuming this is set in approximately 1889, per the novel’s publication date), it’s understandable that he’d be eager to secure £13.8m in today’s money.


Morris: Now, what we need is a venal doctor.

Sellers’ cameo as cat-loving Dr Pratt (“I specialised, you see, in rare malign diseases of the spleen”) came at a point when his Hollywood star was at its height, even if his choices of project were immensely variable; it’s very much a turn, with him donning false nose and a wig, rather than doing or saying anything terribly funny, although his prop acting is amusing (drying hands on one cat and using a kitten, Mervyn, as blotting paper). Less successful, alas, is Tony Hancock’s one-note detective (his last film role).


Peacock: Life is a fraud, Master Michael.

If the majority of the picture is content to amble along pleasantly, Forbes at least ups the pace for the last reel by throwing in a chase, ably supported by John Barry’s irresistibly jaunty score as matters are mixed up with a real funeral procession; Irene Handl (doing RP for a change) gets to be indignant at her fifteen-stone husband’s tiny coffin while Dudley pretends the (wrong) box contained their Yorkshire terrier (“He’d have been fourteen tomorrow”). 


As to the romantic leads – very much not reflected in screen time – Newman may be cast due to nepotism (see also pretty much all Forbes movies), but she seizes on the tone perfectly, and she and Caine have a delightfully ultra-formal chemistry. It’s an atypical part for Caine at this point, having fully taken the opportunity for leads like he might fall out of favour tomorrow, but here he’s part of an ensemble and offering a contrast to the predominately contemporary parts that, post-Zulu, were making his name (also released that year were Alfie, Gambit and Funeral in Berlin). 


Michael: Oh, thank you for pointing out to me how obscene eggs are.

Caine’s take was that The Wrong Box was “so British that it met with a gentle success in most places except Britain, where it was a terrible flop”, and that this was because “it embarrassed them”. His assessment has a flavour of his later period “My homeland doesn’t like me” self-pity; I suspect it’s more likely the picture fell between several stools of the changing fashions of the period, since there were plenty of comedies during the mid-to-late ‘60s that didn’t quite find an audience in the lurch from cosy Ealing to Carry On and then "with-it" fare like The Knack …and How to Get It. The Wrong Box is very likeable, very amiable – and I guess, very British – but it doesn’t invite raves.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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