(director: Bryan Forbes; screenwriters: story by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne/Larry Gelbart/ Burt Shevelove; cinematographer: Gerry Turpin; editor: Alan Osbiston; music: John Barry; cast: John Mills (Masterman Finsbury), Jeremy Lloyd (Brian Allen Harvey), Ralph Richardson (Joseph Finsbury), Michael Caine (Michael Finsbury), James Villiers (Sydney Whitcombe Sykes), Wilfrid Lawson (Peacock), Dudley Moore (John Finsbury), Peter Cook (Morris Finsbury), Nanette Newman (Julia Finsbury), Tutte Lemkow (Strangler), Major Martha (Cicely Courtneidge); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bryan Forbes; Columbia; 1966-UK)

“Mildly amusing silly black comedy set in Victorian England.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bryan Forbes (“The L-Shaped Room”/Seance on a Wet Afternoon”/”King Rat”) directs this mildly amusing silly black comedy set in Victorian England. It’s adapted from an 1899 novel by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and the American author Lloyd Osbourne, the stepson of Stevenson. The American team of Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove pen the screenplay.

The plot involves a “tontine” lottery (named after a Neapolitan banker) signed onto by the parents of 20 young schoolchildren in London, whereby their hefty initial application fee of 1000 pounds is invested by independent solicitors and the sole surviving member of the lottery stands to inherit the large amount of money that is saved. The story picks up with the last beneficiaries, the two elderly Finsbury brothers, the older Masterman (John Mills) and his younger brother Joseph (Ralph Richardson). Though they have residences next door in town houses in London, they have not spoken to each other for the last 40 years.

Helping the irascible Masterman survive old age, poor health and a considerable loss of funds is his timid, naive and unpromising medical student grandson Michael (Michael Caine) with the help of the elderly, feeble and wrinkled loyal butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson-a brilliant character actor who had difficulty getting work because he was an alcoholic). While helping the eccentric know-it-all windbag Joseph, a collector of useless pedantic facts, are a pair of greedy nephews, the cunning sleaze Morris (Peter Cook) and the skirt-chasing dummy John (Dudley Moore), who are determined to get the legacy for themselves even if they have to cheat. Also living with them is Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman, the wife of the director), the beautiful and innocent foster daughter who is in love with Michael even though they have never met. Coincidentally, Michael loves her.

Masterman fears he will die before Joseph and leave his unworldly grandson poverty-stricken. So he invites Joseph over for a visit with the intentions of killing him. Joseph and his nephews are staying in Bournemouth and when they return by train, it crashes. Joseph is believed dead, but the nephews don’t want the authorities to find out until later since they believe the telegram Michael sent them indicated the older brother was on his death bed. So they send the body home in a coffin not realizing that it’s a stranger and that Joseph is alive and hitched a ride by coach to London. Also, the body mistakenly ends up in Michael’s house.

In London, there’s a series of wacky mix-ups that include the cat loving crooked doctor (Peter Sellers) signing a post-dated death certificate for Joseph and the bumbling detective (Tony Hancock) discovering the body in the wrong box is that of the wanted Bournemouth Strangler. In a cutesy style, after all the mixups get straightened out, we learn that it’s the good guys Michael and Julia who will inherit the tontine.

The film did well overseas, but flopped at the box office in England.

The Wrong Box Poster