I won’t even pretend to be objective about The Wrong Box. I saw it (on television, with numerous commercials) a few years after its theatrical release and fell instantly in love with everything about it: its cast (which is a pretty spectacular one), its plot, its dialogue, its style. To an American teenager it seemed the epitome of British black comedy, and I’m still not certain whether it formed my sense of humor or simply reflected it.
What I probably didn’t realize about it at the time was that, despite almost everything else about the film being very British, the brilliant screenplay was written by two Americans: Larry Gelbart, from Chicago, and Burt Shevelove, from Newark. The two of them had collaborated a few years earlier on Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Both of them had come from early television, Shevelove mostly as a producer and director, Gelbart as a writer. Gelbart is the more famous of the two: he went on to write Tootsie, Oh, God! and the television series M*A*S*H.
Their script for Forum, set in ancient Rome, is stuffed with sight gags and one-liners and has a very contemporary feel (well, for 1962). The Wrong Box has just as many sight gags and one-liners, but the setting is Victorian England, and their use of language captures the formality of the era while still aiming right at the funnybone. The humor is also – and this is what I find it very difficult to explain – very British, filled with non sequiturs and absurdity that aren’t often found in American comedy. (One character explains that she’s an orphan: “My father was a missionary. He was eaten by his Bible class.” Queen Victoria, in the process of knighting someone, lets the sword drop too quickly; as we hear a body part drop to the ground, she mutters, “Oh. . . . We are frightfully sorry, Sir Robert.” And a romantic scene is prefaced with a subtitle: “Alone with her at last . . . in a room full of eggs.” If none of these makes you smile, you probably won’t understand the appeal of much of this film.)
The plot, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, centers on a tontine, which one of the characters describes as a “lottery.” The parents of a number of boys, all classmates at the same school, have chipped in and invested one thousand pounds in the tontine. Whichever of the boys is the last to die will inherit the money, including the accumulated interest.
As it happens, the last two classmates left alive are two brothers, Masterman and Joseph Finbury, played by John Mills and Ralph Richardson. Masterman, who detests his brother, summons Joseph to his townhouse in London under the pretence that he’s dying, but with the secret intention of killing Joseph and getting the money. Masterman also lives with his grandson Michael (played by Michael Caine), a not-terribly-bright medical student; in the house next door, along with Joseph’s grandsons Morris and John (played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) lives Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman), whom Michael has worshiped from afar.
Joseph and his grandsons head to London on a train which, unknown to anyone, also contains the Bournemouth Strangler, who is killed when the train collides with another one heading in the opposite direction. Morris and John mistakenly believe that the Strangler’s mutilated body is that of Joseph and ship the body in a barrel to their home in London, but the barrel is mistakenly sent to Masterman’s house instead. (I hope you’re following this, because it doesn’t get any simpler as it goes on.)
Masterman and Joseph have a quarrel during which Joseph is oblivious to the fact that Masterman is trying, albeit ineffectually, to kill him. Michael finds the Strangler’s body and, hearing of the argument from Masterman’s butler (Wilfrid Lawson), assumes that his grandfather has murdered Joseph.
And it goes on from there. There are two brilliant little scenes with Peter Sellers as an unscrupulous and hopelessly drunken doctor in a roomful of cats who agrees to provide Morris with a dubious death certificate. The scenes with Sellers, lasting maybe five minutes in total, are worth the price of admission, and he has some of the best lines in the film. My favorite comes in response to Morris telling him that he collects eggs. “Oh, I enjoy an egg myself, yes. They don’t make good pets, though. You can never get them in at night.”
In addition to the stars, there are dozens of little character roles played by expert British character actors, most of whose names are unknown except to fans of British films: Leonard Rossiter, Graham Stark, John Le Mesurier, Cicely Courtneidge, Gerald Sim, Irene Handl, and many others. Even John Mills’ daughter Juliet (sister to Hayley) has a small role.
The director is Bryan Forbes, who began his film career as an actor and moved into directing in the early 1960s, when he directed some of the best films of the British film renaissance: Whistle Down the Wind, The L-Shaped Room, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers. His wife, Nanette Newman, appeared in a number of his later films – she’s probably the least interesting member of the cast of The Wrong Box, although she’s perfectly competent and quite beautiful.
When Michael Caine made this film, he was just on the verge of becoming a major star. The Ipcress File had been released the previous year, and Alfie was just about to come out, earning him the first of his six Oscar nominations. The three roles are very different from one another, offering an early example of his range and versatility. And nowhere in The Wrong Box is his Cockney accent detectable.
The opening and closing theme music of The Wrong Box has stuck in my head ever since I first saw the film. It’s by John Barry, one of the great film composers (Dr. No, Goldfinger, The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa), and it’s a lovely, wistful little waltz that seems to have nothing to do with the murderous farce it embraces and yet, somehow, sets the mood perfectly. Similarly, the opening credits, all paisley in every color combination imaginable, seems somehow very Victorian and very 60s Carnaby Street.