Wrong Box, The (1966)

Wrong Box, The (1966)

“Thank you for pointing out to me how obscene eggs are.”

As the members of a group investment scheme gradually die off, two elderly brothers — Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson) Finsbury — find themselves last in line to inherit the money. Mills, concerned about the well-being of his soft-spoken nephew (Michael Caine), intends to kill off his brother so that the money will be Caine’s; meanwhile, enroute to visit their “dying” uncle (Mills), Richardson’s two scheming nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) mistakenly believe Richardson has died in a train wreck, and seek the help of an unscrupulous doctor (Peter Sellers) in falsifying the date on his death certificate.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Bryan Forbes Films
  • Death and Dying
  • Dudley Moore Films
  • Inheritance
  • John Mills Films
  • Michael Caine Films
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Peter Sellers Films
  • Ralph Richardson Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while the “actors are funny [and] the lines are funny”, this “once-popular black comedy” — based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne, about an outdated inheritance scheme known as a “tontine” — “isn’t funny”. He accurately points out that “director Bryan Forbes has no sense of comedy pacing”, and that the “picture has no snap”, instead going “on and on without hitting any comedy peaks”. Indeed, in comparison with a comedic gem like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — which the opening scenes here weakly attempt to emulate — The Wrong Box is positively a dud. I disagree with Peary that the “lines are funny”; indeed, I found myself disappointed again and again by the inanity of both the dialogue and the scenarios. For instance, in a scene involving a group of female Salvation Army soldiers, a character cries out “Mercy!”, at which point one of the soldiers steps forth as though called by name, saying, “Yes?” (Thud.) There’s simply no humor in an interaction like this.

Ultimately, Forbes tries too hard, pulling out every trick in the book — including weirdly unnecessary inter-titles, a bit of slow-motion, and tricky editing — in an attempt to bring the material to life. Meanwhile, the majority of the characters come across as either insipid (i.e., Michael Caine and his would-be lover, played by Nanette Newman, whose entire romance seems pointless to the plot) or evil, leaving precious few folks left to root for or enjoy. Exceptions include Richardson’s wickedly droll turn as a polymath professor who simply won’t shut up; Wilfrid Lawson as an inconceivably decrepit butler; and Peter Sellers in a scene-stealing performance as an outrageously corrupt doctor. While I agree with Peary that (many of) the actors do a fine job, their efforts are ultimately wasted in a vehicle that doesn’t do them or the premise justice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt
  • Ralph Richardson as Joseph Finsbury
  • Peter Cook as Morris Finsbury
  • Wilfrid Lawson as Peacock the butler
  • Fine period sets and costumes
  • John Barry’s score

Must See?
No; this one is a disappointment.


One thought on “Wrong Box, The (1966)

  1. I’d seen this once before. Not must-see – and, agreed, largely unfunny.

    Old-style farce (which this is) is rare in fairly contemporary cinema. This one was written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove (the duo responsible for the stage version of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ – also filmed in 1966, though not adapted by them), who largely wrote for television.

    In the ’60s, farcical comedy was a staple of television (to some degree, it has remained so) but, on film, it more or less went into decline. ‘The Wrong Box’ is an example of inner decline…during the decline.

    I don’t think director Forbes is to blame – the charge re: his pacing doesn’t really hold up because you really can’t pace material well if it isn’t funny. (You can try. Nichols’ ‘The Fortune’ is an example of an experienced comedy director trying to save bad material.)

    In fact, there are two parts in the film in which Forbes succeeds admirably: when he is following the journey of the “pedantic, boring old poop” Richardson (who is a joy to watch throughout, being a fine actor anyway) as he makes his way to his brother (Mills, also refreshing in a rare comic role) – and when the two brothers reunite, and Mills attempts (and fails) in various ways to kill Richardson. In both instances, the material the actors and director have to work with is genuinely funny – and all three make the most of it.

    Unfortunately, that success shows up the rest of the film as wildly uneven…ultimately building to a somewhat-baffling chaos that is just not very satisfying (or funny).

    It’s mostly all a shame, really, when the film’s premise had such potential.

    (Of the rest of the cast…I at least admired the comic timing of Peter Cook and Wilfrid Lawson as Peacock, the butler. They at least knew how to compensate and acquit themselves nicely in the way they delivered their lines. …I was not as taken with Sellers here; he seems to mostly be showing off.)

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