Many years ago a tontine was set up for a class of well off children at their private school, which dictated they each would have a thousand pounds paid into a fund, and after decades of financial interest the one pupil left alive would be awarded all the money that had been collected. So time went by, and the ex-schoolboys went the way of all flesh eventually until there were only two left: the Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), who in spite of living right next door to one another, had not spoken in forty years...
So the question was, who would pop their clogs first? And by fair means or foul? Michael Caine played Michael, the innocent grandson of Masterman, and according to him The Wrong Box was a modest hit around the world - except in Britain, where audiences turned their noses up at it, apparently because they recognised nothing of the attitudes depicted as frightfully English here. Basically Caine was right, if this had been made twenty or thirty years later it would have been accused of playing up the heritage cinema aspect of its presentation to bring in the audiences, a style of film which had just as many opponents as it did adherents, in its native land at any rate.
It had been based on a story co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson, not an author celebrated for his great sense of humour, but what was more promising was a fully qualified cast, littered with stars and others who if they were not international household names, had proven their worth in comedy for quite a while prior to making this. The two featured guest stars were Tony Hancock as the detective who appears late on to be perplexed at any attempt to sort out what has become an unholy mess, and Peter Sellers as the doctor who provides a phoney death certificate to one of the nephews of the Finsburys. Hancock was trying big screen stardom but was well on his way out, and Sellers was seeing his fame increase around the world.
Of the two, Sellers came off best, making quite a lot out of not very much and illustrating what a real talent for this kind of humour could do with even the slimmest of comic pickings. Alas, it was not the case with the other cast members, mainly due to the fact that, to be fair, their director Bryan Forbes showed absolutely no flair for comedy on this evidence, with every scene timed slightly off. He looked to be aiming for subtlety, a muted humour that would build to a suitably hilarious climax, but just about every line no matter how potentially funny simply fell flat as a pancake in the morbid and chilly air of the surroundings. About the best thing in this (appropriately?) funereal atmosphere you could say about it was the cinematography and production design were very handsome.
But when you're reduced to praising that about a comedy instead of the jokes, you could see there was an issue here. If mere mention of the word "trousers" in a Victorian setting was enough to set you off giggling, then The Wrong Box would likely find favour with you, but for everyone else it was a source of some dismay to see such great figures of British humour such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (as the scheming nephews) floundering as if in a sketch from their television show that had dragged on far too long. Certainly there was a lot you could have sent up about this type of vintage cinema relying on the past for its atmosphere, but here the strain was on display, not least when they fell back on a hearse race for the grand finale, again, a joke which could have been amusing but like everything else here rendered laborious. What it was more like was a would-be classy variation on the period caper movies of the day, but it was a shame so little about it satisfied. Nice music by John Barry, though.