THE WRONG BOX. Salamander Film Corp., UK, 1966. Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Peter Sellers, Wilfred Lawson, Tony Hancock. Director-producer: Brian Forbes. Based on the book by Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne. [Osbourne was Stevenson’s stepson.]

The Wrong Box    When I was a kid and growing up, I read a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work, as did a lot of kids my age, but I never read The Wrong Box, nor have I rectified that omission any time since. It was published in 1889, which would have made it a contemporary novel instead the period piece it obviously was in 1966.

   So I don’t know, and I’d obviously be guessing, but I imagine that a number of liberties were made to the story — or on the other hand, perhaps not, as the book is described in many places as a “black comedy.” You may or may not recognize the names of some of the players, but on the other hand, you may very well know them better than I do. These are some of the finest British comedians of their era, and there are some who believe that The Wrong Box is the funniest British comedy ever made.

   Personally, I don’t know about that, but sitting here at the computer and typing this off the top of my head, there are some parts here that remember laughing at out loud when I was watching and (this is strange) are even funnier as I think about them now.

   And I’ll get to some of those in a moment. First, though, something about the story. I guess they’re not very common now, but the main item of business that makes the story and keeps it going is a tontine, a legal agreement between a group of individuals that provides for a common total contribution to be bestowed into the hands of the single survivor.

   There’s obviously a lot of material involved in one of these things to power any number of crime stories, which is what allows this movie to be called a mystery movie, but truth be told, looking back in retrospect, there really wasn’t a lot of mystery, nor crime involved.

The Wrong Box    Two brothers are the last two survivors in this case, and they have not spoken to each other in over 40 years. Michael Caine is the shy grandson of one; gloriously beautiful Nanette Newman is the niece of the other; and they have admired each other from afar (and through windows) for many years. (The two families live next to each other in attached homes.) One glimpse of Caine’s bare upper arm is enough for the lady to fall solidly in fluttering love.

   There is a mixup between boxes, naturally enough, one containing a body, the other a statuary being returned. There are attempts at murder, funeral carriages galore, fudged death certificates…

   Morris Finsbury [Peter Cook]: I was wondering — do you by any chance happen to have any — uh — death certificates?

   Doctor Pratt [Peter Sellers]: Do I happen to have any death certificates? What a monstrous thing, sir — what a monstrous thing to say to a member of the medical profession! Do you realize the enormity of what you have just said?

   Morris Finsbury: Yes. Do you have any death certificates?

   Doctor Pratt: How many do you want?

… decrepit old butlers, cheerfully loquacious elderly gentlemen who can speak hours on end on almost anything:

   From the book itself, which is online at, and repeated very closely in the film:

    ‘I am not a prejudiced man,’ continued Joseph Finsbury [Ralph Richardson]. ‘As a young man I travelled much. Nothing was too small or too obscure for me to acquire. At sea I studied seamanship, learned the complicated knots employed by mariners, and acquired the technical terms. At Naples, I would learn the art of making macaroni; at Nice, the principles of making candied fruit. I never went to the opera without first buying the book of the piece, and making myself acquainted with the principal airs by picking them out on the piano with one finger.’

    ‘You must have seen a deal, sir,’ remarked the carrier, touching up his horse; ‘I wish I could have had your advantages.’

    ‘Do you know how often the word whip occurs in the Old Testament?’ continued the old gentleman. ‘One hundred and (if I remember exactly) forty-seven times.’

    ‘Do it indeed, sir?’ said Mr Chandler. ‘I never should have thought it.’

The Wrong Box

   I thought the movie was wonderfully rendered for the first hour and 15 minutes, plus or minus five, but by the end the pace had quickened significantly, and I confess that I had become lost with what body was there, who was dead and who was not. I shall have to watch it again; there’s no way around it.

   I do recommend the film to present-day writers and directors who believe that a film cannot be funny without flatulence, bowel movements, lousy language, nor more than a look at a lady’s ankle. None of those here, and all to the better. (I confess that there is one significant scene of nose-picking.)

   And any movie with Nanette Newman in it is worth seeing more than once, no matter the genre nor who else is in it.