(SPOILERS) Did Ronnie Barker have Peter Sellers’ Dodger Lane in mind when he approached the role of Norman Stanley Fletcher? They’re both very much the resigned con versed in pulling the wool over the eyes of the warders yet forced to contend with a hard-case nemesis. Sellers is very good in Two-Way Stretch, but as with the later The Wrong Arm of the Law (also from the pens of John Warren and Len Heath), he’s upstaged by the magnificence that is Lionel Jeffries.
Sour Crout: Basket weaving. I’ll get you baskets a weaving, don’t you worry.
Jeffries’ comedic high point might be Sergeant Major Sidney McGregor in Michael Winner classic – yes, really– You Must Be Joking! a few years later. That one was co-written by Alan Hackney of Private’s Progress and I’m Alright Jack, and he also contributes here, which may explain why it’s a notch above The Wrong Arm of the Law. Jeffries is another Sidney in this, Prison Officer Sidney “Sour” Crout, and he’s a vision of splenetic authoritarianism unleashed, spitting his orders at the top of his lungs and over pronouncing his every gesture (including a hilariously cartoonish quavering salute).
Dodger Lane, Lennie “The Dip” Price (Bernard Cribbins, also later of The Wrong Arm of the Law) and Jelly Knight (David Lodge) live a luxurious locked-up life in HM Prison Huntley, with all the contraband they could wish for, easy non-rigorous duties, a kindly pushover CPO Jenkins (George Woodbridge) and a rehabilitation-minded Prison Governor Horatio Bennett (Maurice Denham). The latter of whom is even more interested in the welfare of his prize marrows than the men’s. It’s something of a shock, then, when Jenkins retires and Sour Crout is installed in his place, fully intent on enforcing a rigorous and exacting regime. This is even more of a bind as the trio’s old partner in crime, the delightfully named Soapy Stevens (Wilfrid Hyde-White in one of his career-defining turns), has concocted a scheme to rob a sheikh of his diamonds (£2m worth) while they are still incarcerated. This presents them with a perfect alibi but also the thorny problem of achieving this with Crout bearing down on them.
Dodger: Don’t panic! Just remember what the poet said. If you can keep your ‘ead while all about you are doing their nuts, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
As with The Wrong Arm of the Law – where crooks and coppers must collaborate against a greater enemy, an antipodean one – Two-Way Stretch boasts an irresistible premise. And like the later The Italian Job, when it comes to the robbery itself, it is pulled off relatively hitch-free. Obviously, though, the criminal element can’t be seen to get away with it, so there’s a last-minute snag (nevertheless, like Charlie Croker, Dodger has an idea, as seen in the final scene). Much of the mid-section of the movie – Crout arrives on the prison premises at about the half-hour mark – comprises compromised attempts to hatch an exit plan from the nick.
The introduction has successfully established all the main players, with Soapy paying regular visits in the guise of a vicar keen on the recuperation of the three shortly to be released inmates ex- of his parish (on the day after the robbery). We also meet accomplices Mrs Price (Irene Handl on especially toothless form) – “Three years you’ve been in here now, and never once have you tried to escape” she scolds son Lennie – and Dodger’s intended Ethel (the utterly awesome Liz Fraser). Soapy isn’t entirely trusted by the trio, on account of his having an alibi for their last job (we also learn he “tried to flog a couple of aircraft carriers”, although it’s unclear if this was the same crime).
Inevitably, Crout’s attempts to curtail the trio’s endeavours fall foul of his boss. First, he sets them to work in the stone quarry, until some over-applied dynamite results in the destruction of Bennett’s prize marrow. Then he discovers a tunnel being dug under the yard during some strenuous PT; coming up in Bennett’s prize roses does even less for his reputation. Eventually, they hit on using a Black Maria and smuggling themselves out that way (Soapy’s presence as the driver increasingly encourages Crout’s suspicions: “Aven’t I seen you somewhere before?”)
Ethel: Looking forward to coming out?
Dodger: No, I decided I’d like to stay here for the rest of my life.
Ethel: But I thought you didn’t like it here?
Admittedly, Jeffries is largely out of the picture during the heist scenes, but this is more than made up for by Handl and Fraser. You could argue at the logistics of ensuring the army-escorted van stops precisely under the manhole necessary for the job to succeed, but that’s part of the fun with these escapades. The only thing missing is Sid James to respond to Fraser’s pleas for help with her broken-down car: “I’m so glad you stopped. I don’t seem to be sparking properly” (ra-ha-ha) and “I do hope it’s not my big end” (ra-ha-ha)
Sour Crout: Soapy Stevens! You’re hiding him, aren’t you?
Crout engineers the transition from hopeless disaster – picking a fight with a coterie of reverends he accuses of being in on it with Soapy, whom he recognises at the station – to elation when he catches Stevens. And the search of the trio’s train by the Law leads to the classic “I must say, you’ve got the perfect alibi” (unfortunately, Lennie has already been precariously dispatched to the train’s roof with the loot).
It’s the balance of cast members that makes a movie like this sing. Jeffries and Sellers are perfect counterweights, but without the necessary support structure, the picture would be pretty bare. Cribbins is in cultivated innocent mode (“Ere’s a nasty evil little face I’ve not met before” observes Crout). Hyde-White is believably wily and over-confident (not so convincing when trying not to be posh, though). Denham and Woodbridge are commendably oblivious (you feel for poor Jenkins having to return the parting gift of a pocket watch when he discovers they swiped it from the Governor, such that his merriment on learning who his replacement is much earned: “Oh yes, sir. I know him. And tell the lads I wish them the very best of luck!”)
There are numerous amusing incidentals of prison life. Mrs Price trying to smuggle in a “home perm kit” (a bag full of prison-break tools) – and including a file in Jenkins’ leaving cake. The men habitually swiping all the Governor’s cigarettes whenever they’re in his office. The various prison pets, including a messenger pigeon – “Make it? ’E’ll walk it!” – and pet cat Strangeways (of whom we never learn the fate, once Crout has banished him). Also notable are Beryl Reid as a Women’s Institute visitor, Thorley Walters and John Wood as army officers, and Warren Mitchell as a tailoring inmate (“Touch of the Terry-Thomas, sir” he comments of a horrendously spangly waistcoat).
Director Robert Day’s debut was the rather wonderful The Green Man. This was his first and only time working with Sellers, and it was a testing experience. The actor caused four days of delays, refusing to show on set following arguments and listening to “this cadre of people around him that would say one thing, and I was advising him to go in another direction. And finally he came around”. Such behaviour ultimately led to the debacle of Casino Royale, of course, and Day characterised such antics as a symptom of his success:
Peter Sellers was extremely neurotic and at the core very insecure. He was really best at impersonating characters, rather than being a good actor. Two-Way Stretch was really early in his working career. Halfway through the movie he was given a “star” complex. The film people felt he was up and coming.
It's easy to see where Day was coming from with regard to Seller’s range, since he was generally better at, and more comfortable, with caricatures – even soft caricatures as here – than attempting seriously stretching thespian manoeuvres.
Dodger: When you knock off any money, lads never put it on the Stock Exchange. I’ll tell you that for nothing.
By the time Two-Way Stretch came out, the “gentle” British comedy of Ealing and the Boultings had hit its peak, and the decline would manifest increasingly as the new decade progressed (come its mid-point, they were effectively a thing of the past, and You Must Be Joking! can be put down to the hip and happening Winner more than its retro flavour). There’s no sign of that here, though. Comedies like this come with a readily identifiable complement of stars and faces, and at this point, and really up until collaborating with Kubrick, Sellers fitted seamlessly into their number. A word too for Ken Jones’ jauntily-louche theme tune, the perfect accompaniment to proceedings.