Gasp!

Really gorgeous art-nouveau intertitle from THE WRONG BOX, directed by Bryan Forbes.

Fiona always says, when BF’s name comes up, that when he dies the British will suddenly appreciate that a major film talent had been in their midst. Perhaps the problem has been that Forbes, a spiky personality with a strong sense of his own worth, has appreciated himself too much and not left room for anyone else. He was the only filmmaker polled by Sight & Sound magazine who chose one of his own works for his personal Top Ten Movies of All Time. Forbes selected WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, which at least shows he has good taste.

THE WRONG BOX is certainly an uneven piece, with some narrative slackness and muddle slightly spoiling the effect of the loving period recreation (John Barry score, Julie Harris costumes, Ray Simm art direction) and astonishing all-star cast. It’s particularly impressive to a British viewer, since every single face in the movie is somebody known from TV or movies. Major roles for Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, Wilfred Lawson and Peter Sellers (to name only those who give career-high accounts of themselves) are supplemented by walk-ons by the likes of Leonard Rossiter, Graham Stark, Hilton Edwards, Thorley Walters, Irene Handl and the Temperance Seven. And of course there’s the inevitable Nanette Newman (criticism of Forbes’ tendency to cast his wife in everything is a sore point with him, understandably. But I find I’m coming around to Nanette.)

Anyhow, the above intertitle always cracks me up. Clearly influence by HELP!, made the previous year, although the influence really goes back to the cinematic playfulness of the nouvelle vague, it’s especially amusing by way of its utter redundancy: like the comic book sound effect captions in SCOTT PILGRIM, the intertitle describes something we can perfectly well hear for ourselves.

The strangled crier.

THE WRONG BOX is adapted so loosely from Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne’s novel that another version seems like a perfectly good idea — the book has some very funny bits of its own, with only the idea of a corpse in a trunk in common with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s busy script. Osborne’s influence on Stevenson seems to be to rid him of his moralistic side, and the short novel is an exercise in infernal bad taste. I enjoyed it considerably.

16 Responses to “Gasp!”

  1. More features than Hitchcock, in a slightly shorter (but still long) life. Pretty good work. I’ll miss his avuncularity above all.

  2. Chabrol was one of the greats, the chief anthropologist of bourgeois society in the post-Bunuel era. His masterpieces like Les cousins, Les bonnes femmes, Les biches, la ceremonie, Merci pour le chocolat and the many which I am yet to see are seminal moments in film history.

  3. I was working as an usher at the Cinema I and II theaters on New York’s east side when The Wrong Box opened. Consequently I’ve seen in 75-80 times. Pete and Dud are quite good in it, and there’a lovely moment where Nanette Newman and Michael Caine spark romantically.

    Overall it was an attempt at turning Edward Gorey into vaudeville.

    I am in mourning for Chabrol. I thought he was older than 80 — he’s made so many films. And I was just in here singing the praises of A Girl Cut in Two.

    Among the other Chabrols I treasure: Betty, La Ceremonie, Les Cousins, A Double Tour, La Muette and Marie-Chantal vs. Le Dr. KHa

  4. There are still so many Chabrols left for me to enjoy, which is good in a way. Despite being wowed by La Rupture, I haven’t dug much deeper.

  5. La Rupture is lovely — particularly for its detailed hommage to Murnau’s Sunrise.

  6. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Just checked imdb, I’ve only seen Le boucher, La ceremonie and La fleur du mal (which I’d forgotten about). I adored Le boucher for the use of the landscape and of the quiet. I saw a friend’s holiday photos from the region recently and couldn’t help feeling creeped out! It’s a shame that the BBC will mourn the deaths of wonderful film makers with online articles but decide not to show their work.

    Weirdly I was glancing through a French cookery book half an hour ago and saw “Chicken stuffed with Vinegar”.

  7. Was Claude Chabrol in The Wrong Box, too? I’d forgotten his cameo. Regardless, the film would be EVEN BETTER if there had been room for another telly favourite, Eric Sykes.

  8. Ah, Poulet au Vinaigre! Apparently “poulet” is slang for “policeman”, so the title has a second meaning.

    I can’t actually process the information that Sykes isn’t in The Wrong Box when everyone else is. I guess his all-star contributions are Monte Carlo or Bust and Theatre of Blood…

  9. Plus a truly stellar appearance in THE OTHERS, where the only rival star is Nicole Kidman.

    Speaking of Bryan Forbes and ‘all-star’, am I the only person on earth who remembers THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT? Katharine Hepburn, Giulietta Masina, Charles Boyer, Edith Evans, Danny Kaye, Richard Chamberlain and God-only-knows-who-else in an adaptation of the Jean Giraduoux play.

    The film was a huge disaster back in 1969, but I saw it on TV as a kid and really liked it. Mind you, I was all of 11 and perhaps my critical faculties have sharpened a bit. Still, from what I remember, it was actually rather good.

  10. Well, you were 11. . . .

  11. I’ve seen a little of this and thought Danny Kaye was very impressive. Didn’t recognize him at first. I’m more than willing to check it out if I can locate a copy.

    Forbes gave us the really good King Rat, Whistle Down the Wind, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers, The L-Shaped Room, wrote The League of Gentlemen, and he got The Railway Children made. Overall, a force for good in the British film industry, in spite of a few misfires which we never hear the end of.

  12. And then there was DEADFALL. A thriller for which John Barry wrote an entire flamenco guitar concerto and Shirley Bassey sang her all-time-worst song.

    In two words: “OH DEAR!”

  13. Well, but it has Eric Portman playing gay, so I’m kind of intrigued.

  14. Yes, but he’s dreadful, as are his co-stars. Nobody can ‘play’ anything much in a film that bad.

  15. I’m facinated and appalled now, never having seen Portman be bad in anything. I can see why the film rarely shows up.

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