A cast headed by Michael Caine and a barrel of laughs…
The last surviving Finsbury will get the tontine invested loot as two brothers remain alive and a battle for their legacy commences.
The Wrong Box (1966) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD 1080p], HD Retro Trailers and photos © Columbia Pictures
As a kid, one of the best things about school was when the teacher trundled in the telly trolley. For the benefit of those of you not in Scotland, a telly trolley was a television perched – usually precariously – on a trolley on wheels. Its appearance meant that the school lesson would get (even more) exciting in a good way. The sound of the wheels awakening those kids who were in a daydream, nodding off or already asleep.
Once the telly was (gently) positioned by the teacher, this was followed by a mad rush to sit in front of the class. Therefore this obscured the telly screen for the wee ones in the class (ie yours truly). The whole class of kids craning their necks to watch the telly on this to us superhigh trolley – and how it never fell off I don’t know – with a video of the play, book or history lesson you were learning about.
These classic literature inspired films and TV Shows were seen in glorious technicolour and with an all-star cast that we kids probably didn’t recognise… But who cared, it was a telly break!! Sorry, getting excited just thinking about it. Needless to say, it reinforced the subject matter immensely. Indirectly it led to some more memorable childhood moments.
For me it led to a few fun times – see the entry on the Macbeth (1971) incident HERE – and at least a few childhood obsessions on TV and film such as HERE in some much loved films and TV about Henry VIII and his Six wives. With my Darlin Husband learning this fact, early on in our relationship, he now describes history using film.. just in case I don’t get that particular reference.
The work of notable authors from my school days as immortalised in the film included E. M. Forster, Jane Austen and more. Sadly, these were filmed only after I’d studied these books. These filmed adaptations were filmed with sumptuous English settings and with now recognisable big names in period costumes. And so these novels came to life and were appreciated by the square-eyed (someone who watches too much TV) generation.
Robert Louis Stevenson, a notable Scottish novelist’s work was seen or loosely adapted and watched by many of us Scottish kids on a Bank Holiday or at Christmas. With stars as random as Treasure Island (1996) – a film starring the Muppets and Brian Blessed – The TV Movie, The Black Arrow (1985) with Donald Pleasence and Oliver Reed.
At least (?) three of Stevenson’s leading characters were given the Michael Caine acting treatment. With Caine starring in Kidnapped (1971), Jekyll & Hyde (1990) and The Wrong Box (1966). The Wrong Box as my film to be reviewed was one I remembered watching as a kid with fond memories after reading a review for one of my Michael Caine blogathons.
Michael Caine is just one of the many headlining stars of this Bryan Forbes movie. I also was happy to see Forbes behind the camera after watching those films he directed, The Slipper and the Rose (1976) and International Velvet (1978). It seemed a treat of a film especially after reading the lengthy list of British comics and acting greats who co-starred in this movie with it seemed everyone and anyone in the cast.
The plot of The Wrong Box was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson tale written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Set in the Victorian era (with even a wee cameo from this queen as a character in this film), in a London based plot.
It tells of twenty relatives, all boys (for some unknown reason) who are entered by their parents into a tontine scheme. This tontine money was paid after their fathers all paid 1000 quid with the “winner” of the entirety of this money, in this case, going the one who outlived the rest.
After eighteen of these boys grow older, and then die through a variety of grisly and / or bizarre means only two remain alive. The deaths of those other Finsburys (Finsburies?) are seen in a montage with a million and one – slight exaggeration – British comics being killed in a variety of random ways.
The plot and action switch to sixty three years later. The distinguished elderly Masterman (John Mills), lives with his young shy, incompetent medical student grandson Michael (Michael Caine) and doddery old butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson).
Next door lives his brother Joseph’s nervous (read annoying) granddaughter Julia (Nanette Newman) and his nephew Morris’ collection of eggs. The pair despite being cousins have a bit of a crush on each other. This familial romantic pairing is made more acceptable later on in the storyline in a natty twist.
Masterman’s brother, the educated and eloquent Joseph (Ralph Richardson) lives in Bournemouth with his nephews that egg collecting Morris (Peter Cook) and his brother who has an eye for the ladies, John (Dudley Moore). Just to complicate matters there’s a serial killer on the loose in Bournemouth known as The Bournemouth Strangler.
Meanwhile, Masterman, after learning he’s one of the two last surviving members of the tontine – and therefore he’s got a 50-50 chance to get all the dosh – sends a telegram to his brother saying he’s on his deathbed. He devises a plan to kill his brother on his arrival and get the money.
His brother Joseph and those fortune-seeking nephews journey decide to visit him by train. After Joseph disappears from their carriage en route, his jacket is acquired by a nervous fellow train passenger a freak train accident occurs. The nephews discover what they believe are Joseph’s feet sticking out of some of the wreckage after recognising his jacket.
Believing he’s dead, they aim to cover this knowledge up until Masterman “dies”. This is so they can inherit the money by then faking Joseph’s death. After hiding the body in a barrel, Morris tries to obtain a death certificate from Doctor Pratt (Peter Sellers). However, unbeknownst to them, Joseph has got a lift to London from a kindly man with a horse and carriage…
The story was an amusing. well thought out one and it was well told by this amazing comic cast and script. In this farce of a movie, I did enjoy how many a twist in this tale added up to an absurd yet oddly plausible story. I was happy to see the best of those surprises revealed was not discovered until those final film moments.
The film also boasted a cool 60s font for the opening credits that I and my classmates tried to replicate and this was also used with some crazy intertitles during the movie. The accompanying music is also credited to John Barry.
There are blink and miss it moments from sadly missed British comic greats such as Leonard Rossiter and John Le Mesurier. These greats were supported by a comic cast including Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – this pairing in their first big-screen outing – and Tony Hancock. There are also some cameos from actresses Irene Handl and Juliet Mills so keep those eyes peeled.
John Mills was a treasure as the conniving yet inept Masterman and showed he could easily excel in a farce. This is seen in scenes as he tries to kill his on-screen brother. Ralph Richardson gave gravitas and presence to his role as the well-meaning Joseph. Perfect for this role as Richardson’s script showed his character as a walking, talking encyclopedia and this character trait was used to fun effect.
Caine gave another solid, dependable presence in this early film comic role. This film role nestles in his filmography between other Caine comedies Alfie (1966) and Gambit (1966). These early 1960s films from Caine showed his flair for comedy characters that he later used in films including Sweet Liberty (1986) and Educating Rita (1983).
As the only substantial actress role, Bryan Forbes’ off-screen wife, Nanette Newman also starred in this film. I found her character Julia’s running gag where she assumed all the male characters were the Bournemouth strangler super irritating and far too repetitive.
But in contrast, I adored her fun montage with Caine when the two foster cousins realise their mutual love for each other. This is seen through close ups of this pair, with their eyes lingering on various body parts and meaningful looks between them.
This was creatively filmed and overdramatic in a good way. fitting well into the ambience of the movie. The montage was easily the highlight of this acting pair’s on-screen chemistry. As much as I’d love to say this is Nanette’s shining hour, however I feel this must go to her film, The Raging Moon (1971).
But after watching and remembering those classics on film, it’s just sad that this and film adaptations of those classics I learnt about weren’t discovered back then. Films such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), Pride and Predjudice (1940), The Winslow Boy (1958) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) were all available to watch at this time. Or that instead, we had studied Robert Louis Stevenson’s books at length.
Having watched that trio of Stevenson films with Caine over the years, I may just have got a better grade at school. Then I would have easily passed those exams with much better grades after studying at length those of Stevenson’s works as performed by that right honourable Cockney actor.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 /10
The 2020 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon No 7
This film was added to Silver Screen Classics 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon. Other films with this cast include Michael Caine in The Swarm, Jack the Ripper, Sleuth, Dressed to Kill, and many more. He also features as the subject of two of my blogathons HERE and HERE. Nanette Newman stars in International Velvet. Dudley Moore stars in Micki + Maud. Peter Sellers starred in The Ladykillers and Peter Cook stars in Yellowbeard.