Friday, October 27, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #4: The Wrong Box

Cast: John Mills (Masterman Finsbury), Ralph Richardson (Joseph Finsbury), Michael Caine (Michael Finsbury), Peter Cook (Morris Finsbury), Dudley Moore (John Finsbury), Nanette Newman (Julia Finsbury), Tony Hancock (The Detective), Peter Sellers (Doctor Pratt), Cicely Courtneidge (Major Martha), Wilfrid Lawson (Peacock).
Crew: Bryan Forbes (director and producer), Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove (writers), John Barry (music), Gerry Fisher (cinematography), Alan Osbiston (editor), Ray Simm (art direction).

Synopsis: Elderly brothers Joseph and Masterman Finsbury are the last surviving members of a tontine. Whoever outlives the other will receive more than £111,000. The siblings live in adjoining houses but have not spoken for 40 years. Masterman believes he is dying and has his adopted grandson Michael send for Joseph. The other brother is in Bournemouth on holiday with his two adopted grandsons, Morris and John Finsbury. They have kept Joseph alive solely so they can inherit the tontine. All three leave for London by train. On board Joseph’s hat and coat are stolen by a murderer known as the Bournemouth Strangler. The train crashes, killing the fiend. But Morris and John mistake the Strangler for their grandfather. Fearful of losing the tontine, they hatch a scheme to secure the money with a fraudulent death certificate. The pair stuff the body in a barrel and post it to their home address. Confusion reigns as attempts are made to dispose of the corpse and of Masterman’s still living body. The police, two firms of undertakers and a casket containing the cash from the tontine become embroiled in the chaos. Eventually everyone meets at a graveyard where the truth is revealed but the bickering continues…

Quirky comic novel The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne was first published in 1889. More than 75 years later British director/producer Bryan Forbes chose the project as his next film, working from a script by Americans Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove. The pair had recently written a hit Broadway musical called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The film attracted a cast of great British character actors, including distinguished thespians John Mills and Ralph Richardson. The Wrong Box gave comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore their film debuts and provided a final screen appearance for much loved comic Tony Hancock. Caine was given third billing as the nervous, naïve Michael Finsbury.

He took the role as a way to escape being typecast solely as a ladies’ man. ‘It was an antidote to Alfie,’ the actor is quoted as saying in William Hill’s biography, Arise Sir Michael Caine. ‘I wanted to play a shy man with glasses. It was a scene-stealer film – every time you walked on, there was Wilfrid Lawson or Tony Hancock or Cicely Courtneidge or Ralph Richardson doing their number, and you didn’t stand a chance. That picture was so English it went well everywhere except in Britain!’

The picture was shot at Pinewood Studios with location work in Bath, London, Buckinghamshire and Surrey. Caine found himself wooing the director’s actress wife, Nanette Newman, on screen. During filming Forbes told the Evening News he saw nothing wrong in casting his wife. ‘Would I dream of putting her in a role unless I as confident that it was ideal for her? After the bad notices she’d divorce me immediately.’ Caine and Newman had a narrow escape during shooting of the climatic chase sequence. Both were sat atop a horse-drawn hearse when the animals suddenly bolted. It took Caine two miles to get the brings under control.

Forbes was full of praise for Caine’s performance. ‘Michael proved that he is an extraordinary actor,’ the director was quoted as saying in the biography Michael Caine by Michael Freedland. ‘He always showed up, no side, no temperament … just does it. There’s too much preciousness surrounding acting. Most actors I’ve found, the greater the talent, the less the temperament. That’s true with Michael, as with John Mills, Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Dame Edith Evans.’The Wrong Box was released during May 1966, rated U in Britain. Critics and the public were unmoved by the spectacle. But the film still won a BAFTA for its costumes and was nominated for two others – Richardson as best actor and art direction. The picture was released on video in the late 1980s. Long deleted in the UK, it remains available on tape in America. The movie has yet to make its DVD debut. Interviewed in 1999 by the website, Caine dismissed The Wrong Box in just four words: ‘an obscure British comedy.’

Reviews: ‘Some very funny moments … but they are just moments, buried in a quagmire of damp inventions which destroy a story already quite inventive enough.’ – MFB
‘This is a film in which the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.’ – The Observer

Verdict: The Wrong Box is a highly stylised mess festooned with mannered, over the top performances and laboured clowning. The script tries to turn a macabre comedy into a late Victorian farce, but Forbes has over-egged the pudding with all manner of tricks and devices. Pop art nouveau titles cards appear on screen, trying to evoke a bygone age. Half the cast are playing their roles straight while the rest gurn to their heart’s content, creating an ill-advised juxtaposition of acting styles. Caine gives a quiet, restrained performance among the eccentrics and makes little impression as a result. Unless you are a devotee of anyone involved, The Wrong Box is best forgotten.

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