Tontine Spirit

Bryan Forbes’ THE WRONG BOX, scripted by Larry Gelbart & Burt Shevelove from (very, very loosely) Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osborne’s comic novel, comes close to being really good. Peter Cook & Dudley Moore are terrific. Ralph Richardson’s delivery and John Mills’ slapstick are excellent. The strange pairing of Michael Caine and Nanette Newman (Mrs. Forbes, de rigeur in his movies) kind of works. And the thronging cast also includes startling work from Wilfred Lawson — looking like a vulture’s foot, clenched into a long, knotty fist — Peter Sellers — pure Goon Show lunacy — and a late appearance by Tony Hancock, who’s barely holding himself together, alas.

I can’t quite work out why it doesn’t exactly hang together. Forbes doesn’t have nearly enough money for what he’s trying to do — so the skits at the start showing the untimely demises of a bunch of actor friends (Leonard Rossiter should learn not to take part in duels) are mostly performed against tiny, unconvincing sets (and the gags are weak as well as grisly). We see TV aerials on Victorian rooftops. Forbes’ ludic mode isn’t as natural to him as Richard Lester’s but the art nouveau titles are nice. Some of the editing has just the right rhythm, some is jagged or random. Either Forbes hasn’t thought out his scene transitions or he’s been forced to rethink them because something didn’t work, necessitating a reordering.

Then the final chase gets terrifically poor — money trouble, I think. John Barry has contributed a lovely music-box theme but doesn’t want to get out and push with the action sequence. Maybe the Bonds had him tired out. Then there’s a kerfuffle in a cemetery with some good dialogue again and then —

VERY abruptly we’re pulling out in a helicopter shot that’s blowing everything all over the place, and without much of anything being settled, it devolves into chaos. I know it was the sixties, so maybe Forbes felt nobody wanted to see order restored… it feels like Gelbart & Shevelove wrote him a resolution but he copped out of using it. Farces depend on neatness, it’s the basis of their form. You can write countercultural farce — Orton was the master of it — but you can’t write sloppy farce. It’s the same as bad farce.

But still, Peter Cook gets to say “You realise you made me drop my grebe.”

5 Responses to “Tontine Spirit”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    One of those movies one remembers as being better than it was. Lots of nice bits, like Richardson being blithely unaware a violent Mills is trying to kill him. Some flashes of Cook and Moore byplay (did they ever get another film teaming like “Bedazzled” or the unfortunate “Hound of the Baskervilles”? They’re just working actors — good ones, but still — here and in “Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies”). Low-key exchanges relating to the obscenity of eggs and such. And the good doctor talking to his cats.

    The chase gag where the band keeps shifting from cheery to funereal music is something that might have worked in a cartoon or a silent comedy, where the hearses could instantaneously pop in and out of awareness. But here the reality of size and distance slows it down and kills it.

    Similar deflations happen in many 60s comedy spectacles, where sheer lumbering size ends up becoming the joke (“Mad Mad Mad Mad World”). What occasionally saves outsized gags is making the actual joke almost tiny, the prize example being the train wreck in “The General”. The wreck is impressive, but the huge laugh is the general looking just a little discomfited.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I was working as an usher at Cinema I and II on third New York (now long gone I fear) when this film opened and have therefore seen it some 50 to 60 times. Incredibly entertaining. Cook and Moore are marvelous as always, and so is Sellers in his one sc3ne in which e’s surrounded by cats — and uses one to blot a document he’s just signed.

  3. Fiona Watson Says:

    I love it when Cook does his ‘angry’ acting. And he’s positively seething throughout this film.

  4. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hi David E! David C and I are always quoting Sellers in this movie. He washes his hands and then dries them on a cat, resulting in his hands becoming hideously befurred. “Look at that. Scarcely human,” says Sellers.

  5. I may have watched this almost as many times as David E, because I recorded it off the TV and became obsessed with it. I seem to have internalized the editing rhythms, good and bad.

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