ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Wrong Box (1966) dir: Bryan Forbes Blu Ray (Indicator)
Who will win the tontine?
This star-studded period black comedy is loosely adapted from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. It is set in Victorian-era England and begins as a group of privileged children receive the news that a large amount of money has been left for them in a form of lottery-based investment fund known as a tontine. Whoever outlives the rest of them shall be eligible for the final sum accrued.
Moving forward many years later, and only two of the potential recipients survive: Masterman Finsbury (played by John Mills) and his brother Joseph (played by Ralph Richardson). Masterman lives with his grandson Michael (Michael Caine) and a mountain of debt. Since he is in severely ailing health, he gets Michael to forward a telegram onto Joseph with a view to “discussing matters” (make of that what you will). Michael initially takes the letter to Joseph’s nearby home, only to be greeted by a pretty young woman, named Julia (Nanette Newman), whom he has had his eye on. While she is clearly attracted to him as much as he to her, the fact that she seems to be his cousin causes something of an issue.
Anyway… she provides him with a forwarding address for Joseph, who lives with his own grandsons Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore). When Morris - the smarter and more dominant of the two - intercepts the letter, they set about striving to ensure that their grandfather outlives his brother, this availing them with the opportunity to get their grubby hands on the tontine cash. Considering that Joseph, while ageing, is in rude health and Masterman is at death’s door, success seems more or less assured. Well, in theory. As it turns out, their plans are complicated by an endless string of freak occurrences and mix-ups.
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A stellar comedy
All-star ensemble comedies haven’t exactly had a great track record over the years. From Yellowbeard to Movie 43, the results of pulling together a diverse array of performing talents in an attempt to generate laughs have generally veered from patchy to downright disastrous. However, The Wrong Box is a notable exception. While arguably a trifle more elaborate than it really needed to be, the cast is mostly well used and there are plenty of laughs throughout.
John Mills is great as the elderly Masterson, a man who is undeniably wily and unscrupulous, yet too physically decrepit to carry out his nefarious actions with much effectiveness. Ralph Richardson is even more enjoyable as the learned yet paradoxically clueless Joseph, who - in two dryly hilarious running gags - regales all and sundry with endless trivia but remains blissfully incapable of sensing approaching danger. In a highlight, these two veterans act together a classic slapstick sequence where Masterman’s futile attempts to off Joseph are brushed aside with straight-faced nonchalance by the latter. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s double act is also given plenty of chance to shine, with the former excelling as a pompous, bullying slimeball and the latter performing a dry run for his gormless, womanising man-child role in Arthur (1981). Peter Sellers gets maximum laughs from only a couple of scenes as a dodgy, clearly not-all-there doctor living in the company of a ludicrous number of cats. These furry felines come in handy for some very questionable household and office uses. Michael Caine and Nanette Newman (the latter of whom was the wife of director Bryan Forbes and is arguably most fondly remembered for her appearances in those Fairy Liquid adverts which played on British TV during the 1980s) give some heart to the mayhem as the endearingly unassuming central couple.
Of course, great casting and zany characterisations don’t amount to much if the surrounding material isn’t up to snuff. Thankfully, The Wrong Box hits the mark more often than not in this respect. There are several marvellously constructed setpieces here, ranging from an early montage featuring the various tontine candidates dying in a bewildering variety of comically grisly ways, to a lengthy and mishap-filled climactic hearse coach chase. Needless to say, since much of the humour based around profiting off death or dying, it’s all in pretty cruel taste. However, the film has a certain classily eccentric olde-Englishness which makes it easy to swallow despite itself. The production and costume design are suitably sumptuous, with some Art Nouveau-influenced intertitle cards adding a charming signature finishing touch.
It’s a real pity that they don’t really make comedies like this one anymore. Amongst modern films, the works of Wes Anderson arguably come closest in style to it. Even they, however, have a certain whimsical gentleness at heart despite their moments of dark comedy. The Wrong Box, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to compromise its sharp cynicism right up until the end credits roll. Then, and only then, do we get a closing image which gives a small, token glimmer of hope that not all of humankind is so irredeemably self-serving.
Runtime: 105 mins
Dir: Bryan Forbes
Script: Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne
Starring: John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Wilfrid Lawson
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Once again, this is a superb Indicator presentation. Those 1960s Technicolor visuals are a rich feast for the eyes with spot-on grading, texture and detail. The soundtrack is clear and warm-sounding throughout.
Audio Commentary with Jo Botting and Vic Pratt
Jo and Vic, both from the BFI, discuss this film’s production, star-studded cast and the mixed contemporary critical reception that it received. While based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, there were numerous changes made in the adaptation to the screen. For example, the character of Michael in the book was a high-powered lawyer who manipulated everyone else. In the film (where he is played by Michael Caine), he is a fairly mild-mannered medical student. The house exteriors were shot at Royal Crescent in Bath and, as Jo points out, an anachronistic TV aerial is visible in a couple of shots.
The commentary is at its most interesting when they discuss the casting. It was the first big screen appearance for the comedy double act of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. They were apparently rather nervous, especially in the presence of the revered Ralph Richardson. Richardson himself nearly turned down the role because one of his scenes features a train with an internal corridor, something which didn’t exist during the Victorian era. However, Forbes pleaded for him to reconsider because it was essential for the plot mechanics. Richardson ultimately agreed to do it but made a very specific request: to wear the same jacket which was part of his costume for his previous film, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. Peter Sellers initially demanded £25,000 for just two days’ work (which was a hefty salary for a British film of this period). This surprised Forbes, who considered him to be a close friend. In the end, Sellers agreed to do it for a much smaller sum which he eventually gave to charity. The cats which feature heavily in Sellers’s two scenes were his own idea.
Bryan Forbes Interview
Filmmaker Roy Fowler conducted this 102-minute audio interview with director Bryan Forbes in 1994 as part of British Entertainment History Project. Forbes talks mainly about his time as the head of EMI studios between 1969 and 1971. Cue plenty of anecdotes about filmmaking politics and the adverse financial conditions under which the company worked after a merger with MGM, when it was under the aggressive cost cutting regime of “The Smiling Cobra” James T. Aubrey.
Box of Delights
Actress Nanette Newman reminisces about the film. She reveals, amongst other things, that her then-husband and director Bryan Forbes aimed at a silent film feel for the love scene between her and Michael Caine. She also talks about an incident which occurred when herself and Caine were riding the horse-drawn hearse during the climax. The horses went out of control, potentially putting the pair of them in danger. However, while she was reduced to screaming her head off, Caine kept is cool and, despite his lack of experience with horses, managed to take the reins and rectify the situation.
Assistant Editor Willy Kemplen talks about his experiences on set in this enjoyable interview. He mentions that comedian Tony Hancock seemed rather glum and unsociable in the flesh, only coming to life when he was playing his scenes. He also tells us about a couple of on-set incidents: an exploding light rig setting fire to the roof of one of the houses at the Royal Crescent location, and a brief visit by Princess Margaret.
Chasing the Cast
Second assistant director Hugh Harlow is interviewed here. The Wrong Box was the first of two films which he made with director Bryan Forbes. He regales us with various anecdotes about the cast: Wilfrid Lawson (who played Masterman’s butler) was an alcoholic and very forgetful - once or twice necessitating the crew going on missions to find him, Dudley Moore was a naturally very funny person in conversation, while Ralph Richardson (despite his fame and wealth) went around everywhere on a motorbike.
The other extras here are a collector’s booklet, theatrical trailer and image gallery.
The Wrong Box is loads of fun for those who enjoy a decent, genuinely witty comedy. It’s another excellent Indicator disc, albeit not quite as extras-heavy as some of their others.