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Set in Victorian London, The Wrong Box (1966) is a black farce about two brothers, Masterman Finsbury (John Mill) and Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson), the only remaining members of a unique group lottery called a Tontine. As the sole surviving member of the lottery stands to inherit a considerable fortune, it's inevitable that simple human greed will motivate one of the brothers to conspire against the other. What follows is a tale of premeditated murder, accidental death, police manhunts, and a red herring subplot involving the notorious Bournemouth Strangler - all treated in broad comic strokes.
The Wrong Box was adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne novel by the writing team of Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, both of whom were responsible for the enormous stage success of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Like that previous hit, The Wrong Box has a frantic pace, witty dialogue, and a fondness for physical comedy. It was these qualities that appealed to Bryan Forbes, a director who had never made a comedy before and was best known for his somber dramas (The L-Shaped Room, 1962, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964). The final concoction remains an amusing anomaly in Forbes' career: a sort of contemporary Mack Sennett comedy filmed in a mod sixties style, complete with odd sight gags and playful visual touches like comic subtitles. Best of all, The Wrong Box features some of the finest comic actors of the British stage and screen; among them are Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and less well known performers like Cicely Courtneidge and Wilfrid Lawson (hilarious in the role of Peacock). Peter Sellers also shows up in a funny cameo as a disreputable doctor. In addition, Forbes cast his wife, Nanette Newman, as the main female lead, and gave Michael Caine the opportunity to try his luck at farce after appearing in such serious films as The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966).
In his autobiography, What's It All About?, Michael Caine recalls the making of The Wrong Box: "I was cast as a thirty-three-year-old virgin. This was only a small role, but it meant that I could work with Bryan and his wife Nanette Newman, so I took it. It was on this film that Bryan and I cemented our friendship. The Wrong Box is a Victorian comedy that rapidly develops into farce, and is so British that it met with a gentle success in most places except Britain, where it was a terrible flop. I suppose this was because the film shows us exactly as the world sees us - as eccentric, charming and polite - but the British knew better that they were none of these things, and it embarrassed us. Wilfrid Lawson was a raging alcoholic at the time, and Bryan had to stand for his insurance on the film because no company would do so. The picture was shot in the beautiful city of Bath and it was on the journey there before work even started that we discovered exactly why Wilfrid Lawson found it so difficult to obtain insurance. He was bombed out of his mind twenty-four hours per day, but he was still one of the most brilliant actors with whom I ever worked." It was also during the making of The Wrong Box that Michael Caine struck up a friendship with Cary Grant (they met in Bristol) that lasted until Grant's death in 1986.
Producer/Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: Larry Gelbart, Lloyd Osbourne, Burt Shevelove, Robert Louis Stevenson (story)
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Costume Design: Julie Harris
Film Editing: Alan Osbiston
Original Music: John Barry
Principal Cast: John Mills (Masterman Finsbury), Jeremy Lloyd (Brian Allen Harvey), Ralph Richardson (Joseph Finsbury), Michael Caine (Michael Finsbury), James Villiers (Sydney Whitcombe Sykes), Wilfrid Lawson (Peacock), Dudley Moore (John Finsbury), Peter Cook (Morris Finsbury), Nanette Newman (Julia Finsbury).
By Jeff Stafford