Color, 1966, 105 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)
Still strangely underrated outside of its modest cult status, The Wrong Box brings a dazzling pop art sensibility to effervescent Ealing Studios approach that had defined postwar comedies. The result is a star-studded, slightly morbid treat with an avalanche of great one-liners and an unpredictable plot adapted (more or less) from an 1889 novel by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, co-written with stepson Lloyd Osbourne.
The fun starts with a montage showing the fates of numerous schoolboys involved in a tontine, essentially an inheritance lottery with the £100,000 sum going to the last survivor. A string of darkly comic mishaps over the years wipe out the participants until the last two standing are the two estranged Finsbury brothers: Joseph (Richardson), who isn't the most astute person in the world and has a chatty penchant for trivia, and the scheming Masterman (Mills), whose relatives include modest, sweet-natured grandson Michael (Caine) and conniving cousins Morris (Cook) and John (Moore). An accidental identity switch involving a serial killer aboard an ill-fated train leads Morris and John to believe that Joseph is dead, which starts a plot that has multiple family members plotting to bump off one or both of the brothers as misunderstandings accumulate involving a shipped coffin and an inconvenient dead body.
After getting his start as an actor, director Bryan Forbes was never really a critics' favorite despite the positive reception to some of his early efforts like Whistle Down the Wind and King Rat. By this point he wasn't considered as edgy as colleagues like John Schlesinger or Tony Richardson, but his films made money and he had a strong rapport with a stunning stable of actors reflecting a level of high respect for English theater and film going back for decades. That's nowhere more evident than in the opening of this film with a parade of cameos in the opening death montage, and that approach would evolve further in his next film, The Whisperers, a vehicle for legendary actress Edith Evans. After suffering a major professional black eye with the misunderstood Deadfall, Forbes had a very bumpy time in the '70s but did score a big hit with The Stepford Wives. The Wrong Box is a Forbes film through and through despite being his only full-fledged comedy; it's a classically mounted production complete with a gorgeous, very catchy score by John Barry (Forbes' composer of choice until switching over to Michael J. Lewis with The Madwoman of Chaillot) and a prominent role for his thespian wife, Nanette Newman, who would headline several of his other films. Directors casting their spouses can be treacherous territory, but it's the perfect choice here as she's absolutely perfect and gets some of the film's funniest lines (especially the one about a Bible class). The entire cast gets to shine here with Moore and Cook (a popular BBC comedy team) stealing scenes left and right in their first feature film together (followed by Bedazzled and The Bed-Sitting Room) and Peter Sellers getting an indelible extended cameo as a down on his luck doctor who happens to collect pussycats.
Available on all major home video formats over the years including a pressed DVD in the U.K. and an MOD DVD in the U.S., The Wrong Box never had a special edition of any kind until the 2018 region-free Blu-ray from Indicator. Sony's HD master is in typically tip-top shape and looks splendid here with the 1.75:1 framing appearing accurate for a film that's shifted slightly in aspect ratios over the years. A very lively new audio commentary with Josephine Botting and Vic Pratt shows great affection for the film as they tackle the film's diverse mixture of comic styles, the interesting reactions to casting working class Caine as a posh adopted med student, the logistics of shooting real exteriors that could pass for the period mixed with Pinewood interiors, the cavalcade of notable faces in big and small parts, and the changes made to the source material. The film can also be played with a career-spanning discussion with Forbes and Roy Fowler as part of 1994's The British Entertainment History Project Interview, full of tales about the evolution of the British film industry from the obstacles of camera noise to long story of the controversial but notable period he spent as the head of EMI starting in 1969. In the new "Box of Delights" (20m19s), Newman recalls her very happy time making the film, the advantages of a film holding up over time when it's set in the past, the adjustments made to the script to suit the actors, and the "school party" atmosphere while shooting in Bath. "Box Cutting" (9m24s) with assistant editor Willy Kemplen starts off on a funny note as he shares a tale about meeting Forbes many years earlier, appreciating the mood created by Barry's score, and working on making the houses they were shooting as convincing as possible. Finally, "Chasing the Cast" (10m15s) with second assistant director Hugh Harlow charts the more relaxed shooting schedule compared to his breakneck work on Hammer and shares a memory of losing one essential actor for an upcoming scene. The theatrical trailer is also included along with an 18-image gallery of stills and poster art.
The 3,000-unit limited edition comes with a hefty insert booklet featuring a strong new essay by Louis Barfe about the film's origins with Americans Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, an excerpt from Forbes' autobiographies about the casting process, a bit from Caine's 1992 memoirs, the original authors' introduction explaining the tontine, and a sampling of mostly middling reviews from its original release.
Reviewed on November 26, 2018.
Color, 1966, 105 mins. 32 secs.