Lots of goofy things happen in “The Wrong Box,” a 1966 movie directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson and John Mills. When the parents of a dozen children establish a tontine, a monetary instrument that draws interest, they stipulate that the entire fortune goes to the last survivor. Over the years, various heirs to the fortune die, leaving only two survivors, the Finsbury brothers — Masterman (Mills) and Joseph (Richardson). However, the very competitive brothers dislike each other and haven’t spoken in years.
Caine plays the mild-mannered Michael Finsbury, the adopted grandson of Masterman, and a medical student. Masterman cooks up a scheme to lure Michael back from a vacation in Bournemouth, so he can reacquaint himself with his rival and carry through on some devious intentions. Although The Wrong Box is graced with the considerable talents of Peter Sellers, Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore, and Nanette Newman — all playing wacky characters — I think Richardson’s portrayal of crashing bore Joseph steals the film for me. He spends the entire movie relating one useless fact after another, like a walking encyclopedia that’s unaware of anything going on around him except as a talking point for a new and boring subject.
While sorting out the tontine story, a parallel tale features a serial killer stalking Bournemouth who factors into the villainy perpetrated by Cooke and Moore. They mistakenly send a dead body to the wrong house (and in the wrong box). Cooke and Moore play the adopted sons of Joseph, who lust after the fortune and want to get rid of Joseph at the same time. Meanwhile, clueless Michael falls in love with Joseph’s adopted daughter, played with wonderful daffiness by Nanette Newman. She’s a bright light of femininity and subtle humor in an otherwise overwhelmingly male cast.
Director Forbes’ embarrassment of riches also includes Peter Sellers, who plays the disgraced and alcoholic Doctor Pratt. When Cooke’s character arrives at his office, Pratt awakens from a stupor in the midst of numerous pet cats. Forbes lets Sellers and Cooke play this highly amusing scene to its comic limits. One of the highlights includes Pratt’s use of a kitten to blot off excess ink from a bogus death certificate. No cats were hurt in the scene, and they seem to add to the fun on cue.
The story comes from a novel co-written by Robert Lewis Stevenson and published in 1889. The producers of this film don’t modernize the story in any way, which is an excellent decision since the Victorian wackiness is part of the fun. Despite the emphasis on death and funerals, the production avoids being creepy or horrific, even though it includes a massive train wreck and a long scene at a gravesite. It all adds up to a very funny film.