Directed by Bryan Forbes
Written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne
Starring John Mills, Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Peter Sellers
Robert Louis Stevenson is most widely known these days for dark stories like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Monkee’s Paw,” but he did have a lighter side. In 1889, he co-wrote "The Wrong Box” with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne and the farcical novel was turned into a black comedy film in 1966.
The movie is centered on a tontine.* There are only two people left from the original group, brothers Masternan (John Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson). Masterman’s grandson Michael (Michael Caine) takes care of him while studying to be a physician, while Joseph is attended by his conniving grandsons Morris (Peter Cook) and John Finsbury (Dudley Moore) and his granddaughter Julia (Nanette Newman).
There is a lot of money at stake, and that brings out the greed in several of the participants. Masterman tries to kill his brother, though Joseph is oblivious. At the same time Morris and John want to make sure that Joseph is the one who survives to get the money. The kindly and awkward Michael doesn’t care about the money, but is infatuated with Julia, who reciprocates his feelings.** When a letter comes to Joseph implying Masterman is on his deathbed, Morris pushes Joseph to go to his brother so they take the train. Which crashes. Morris thinks that Joseph is dead and concocts a plan to ensure the news doesn’t get out until Masterman is dead. But Joseph has actually survived the crash.
Then it gets complicated.
Ralph Richardson is great at Joseph, the most boring man on the planet, who regales everyone nonstop with trivial facts and is oblivious to people’s reactions to him. Caine’s Michael is played as a pure innocent, slowly romancing Julia without and idea of how to approach it. Mills’s Masterman is the more desperate of the brothers.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are always delightful. Moore is a womanizer, while Cook is the schemer, whose schemes never work out well for him. By now, they had experience working together and make the most of it.
Special kudos have to go to Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt, a physician of dubious morals and forgetful manner. The scenes with him and Cook are a highlight,as two comic geniuses play off each other.
The script was written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, who had hit it big with the book of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. Their adaptation of the novel quite faithful to the book, though they added the romance elements, but clearly made fun of the convention when it comes out that Julia and Michael aren’t really cousins, after all.
Director Bryan Forbes continued directing major films for a few more years and was also involved in writing screenplays and acting.
A very funny adaptation of a very funny novel.
*A financial instrument where a group of people put money into a pot and get interest from it each year. As each of the member dies, the interest is divided up by one fewer person until the last person alive gets the entire pot.
**Turns out they were both adopted, so they aren’t actually cousins.