Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

You’re a regular little CIA all on your own, aren’t you?

The Internecine Project (1974)
(SPOILERS) I underrated Ken Hughes’ sharp little spy thriller last time I saw it; probably, the quality of the battered, pan-and-scanned print didn’t help any. In pristine form, The Internecine Project – I think it’s a great title, in contrast to Glenn Erickson’s appraisal – reveals itself as commendably oddball and unlikely, but also politically shrewd picture, if in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed. Plus, it has James Coburn, being magnificently James Coburn about everything.

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…