There’s a type of late-sixties British comedy film for which I have a fondness that is out of all proportion to its actual merits — films which are sort of a lower-budget and slightly more hippyish equivalent of American films like It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In these films, which generally have either Peter Sellers or Peter Cook in, a large cast of immensely funny people is used in place of a coherent script or any kind of real filmmaking ability. Examples include Casino Royale and The Magic Christian, but there are absolutely loads of these things.
The Wrong Box is one of the earliest examples of this kind of film, and thus the most coherent. Where most of these films have troubled productions, with directors and screenwriters getting sacked, and the star doing a runner halfway through the film (so for Casino Royale, for example, there are six directors and half of Peter Sellers’ scenes were never even filmed) this one has only one director and two writers, and has a plot that hangs together well — it’s a dark farce, based around people competing to be the heirs to a tontine — a sort of lottery in which several people put in a stake and the last one alive gets the lot.
It’s also one of the few of these films to actually feature people known as serious actors in the main roles — the two elderly brothers who are the last two heirs are played by Ralph Richardson and John Mills (and Richardson in particular is very good indeed as an oblivious old buffer who annoys everyone around him) while the hero and heroine are played by Michael Caine and Nanette Newman, both of whom unfortunately do the thing that straight actors often do when appearing in a comedy, of playing the roles just a little too broadly.
But the rest of the cast contains… well, it contains everyone you might think of for a British comedy in 1966. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore play the bumbling villains (and sadly, as is always the case when given a script he didn’t write himself, Cook is not on his best form — he’s still funny, but you wouldn’t believe from watching this that many people consider him to be the funniest man who ever lived), but the film also features Tony Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Leonard Rossiter, Irene Handl, John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Peter Sellers (in a relatively small but film-stealing role as an incompetent drunken doctor), Graham Stark (because Peter Sellers is in the film so of course Stark is), Nicholas Parsons… plus a few other character actors not usually known for comedy roles, like Tutte Lemkow, Dame Cicely Cortneidge, and Valentine Dyall. Basically every single person in the film, even if they’re only in it for a few seconds, is someone who’s always worth watching.
Plot-wise, it’s a rather conventional farce — two brothers, both of whom stand to inherit, live next door to each other and haven’t spoken in decades, someone else dies while wearing the coat of one of the brothers, mistaken identities, mistaken deaths, and general hijinks ensue as his heirs try to cover up the death, and then in the end the innocent heirs of the two brothers get engaged, meaning they’ll end up with all the money whoever inherits it.
The film actually inhabits a sort of halfway house between the earlier Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies (there’s more than a hint of Kind Hearts and Coronets about it, though Kind Hearts is the much better film) and the Casino Royale type — the start, with the montage of accidental deaths, is straight out of Ealing, while the big chase scene at the end (with multiple horse-drawn hearses chasing each other around a crossroads while a workman sits in the middle, is more than a little reminiscent of the car chase scenes in every Pink Panther film (including the first one, which preceded this by a few years).
The film has few standout laugh-out-loud moments (my personal favourite is Sellers blotting a death certificate with a kitten), but it’s probably the most watchable film of its type, if you’re someone who, unlike me, didn’t have their aesthetic senses warped at a young age by too much exposure to third-rate Sellers vehicles like After The Fox. I’m quite surprised it’s never been remade as a big-budget Hollywood film — you could quite easily pitch it as “It’s Weekend at Bernie’s meets Ocean’s Eleven”, and the Victorian novel it’s based on is firmly in the public domain. But as it is, it’s a pleasant, if unremarkable, period piece.
The DVD (at least the version I own), incidentally, is the most bare-bones one I’ve ever seen. You know those DVDs that mention “menu” as a special feature? That’s because of DVDs like this one, which doesn’t even have that.