November 3, 2011 -- This English farce is extremely silly, but also very funny as it carries it's absurd story along on a wave of enthusiasm, wit, style and panache. It also benefits from some very fine actors and a noble literary background. Based on a story written by Robert Lewis Stevenson, the film features one of the top new movie stars of England at the time, Michael Caine, fresh off some big hits, “Zulu,” “The Ipcress File” and “Alfie.” Another young actor in the film, Dudley Moore, would later become a major star in such hits as “Arthur” and “10.” The film also features some British acting royalty, like Ralph Richardson and John Mills, as well as this other guy often called the greatest comic actor of all time, Peter Sellers (“Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”).
In this film, Caine is the star as young Michael Finsbury. His grandfather, Masterman Finsbury (Mills) and Masterman's brother, Joseph Finsbury (Richardson) are the last two survivors of a Tontine investment scheme. Whoever outlives the other will inherit a large sum of money. This isn't the way Tontine investments usually work. Usually, each member gets a regular annuity payment which increases over time as investment members die. The variation where nobody gets paid until the next to last Tontine recipient dies is a foolish investment, but it serves as an convenient motive in many murder mysteries. Here, it is the same, except that it also provides a motive for comedy.
Although Masterman and Joseph live next door to each other, they haven't spoken in 40 years. When Masterman, who is desperately poor, finds out he and his brother are the last two Tontine survivors, he sends for his brother, planning to kill him and claim the money. The reunion scene between the two brothers is hilarious as Masterman keeps trying to kill Joseph (a crashing bore), who is oblivious to this, but remains unharmed through sheer luck. Mills does some brilliant slapstick bits in the scene.
Due to an absurd mixup, Michael's cousins, Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore) think that Joseph has died in a train wreck while traveling back to London to see his brother, who is supposedly dying. Morris and John scheme to keep the supposed death a secret until after Masterman has died, so they can collect the Tontine money. The body they think is Joseph's is actually a criminal who had stolen Joseph's coat. They put the body in a barrel and ship him to London. The box gets delivered to Masterman's house by mistake and more mixups ensue, leading to a merry chase of hearses through London after a box full of money.
In the midst of all this is a budding romance between Michael and the girl next door, Julia Finsbury (Nanette Newman). There is also room in the film for a classic Peter Sellers' characterization as the bumbling, befuddled Doctor Pratt. Sellers, at his very best here, turns a couple of routine criminal encounters into a comedy of errors in a room full of cats. I would be willing to bet that a lot of what happened in these scenes was improvised by Sellers. Another extremely funny performance is turned in by another fine actor, Wilfrid Lawson (“The Prisoner”) who plays Peacock, the beleaguered butler. This film was released in the last year of Lawson's life (1966), yet it is one of his very best performances in a long and storied career.
This film has what Roger Ebert sometimes calls an idiot plot. It requires idiots to make it work, but that also describes a farce, and that is what this is. It is a farce with a lot of class and style, carried off with some brilliant acting. It also has what most films with idiot plots lack, restraint, subtlety and sly wit. Intertitles are used in the film in the same manner as in a silent movie, and this film does have a similar visual style to some older silent comedies. They don't make films like this anymore with this kind of style and class and with actors like these. This film is a rare, delightful film. I was lucky a friend of mine had it and loaned me an old VHS tape of it (it is now available in DVD format). This film rates a B.
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