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Film / The Wrong Box

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The Wrong Box is a 1966 British Black Comedy film directed by Bryan Forbes, loosely based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. It centers around the last two surviving members of a tontine and their greedy relatives.

In 1818, the parents and guardians of twenty schoolboys each contribute £1,000 to a Tontine, a sum of money to be invested and grown into a massive fortune to be claimed by the last beneficiary left alive. By 1882, the competitors have mostly met Undignified Deaths; the two last survivors are brothers Masterman Finsbury (John Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson). The bedridden Masterman is cared for by his bumbling medical student grandson Michael (Michael Caine) and plans to summon Joseph, to whom he has not spoken for forty years even though their London houses are next door to each other, to his "deathbed" to murder him and claim the tontine, while Joseph's greedy nephews Morris and John (respectively Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their first joint film appearance) are determined to keep him alive for just long enough to survive Masterman so that they can inherit the tontine. Joseph is also guardian to Julia (Nanette Newman); she and Michael have been in love for years despite only ever having seen each other from afar.

As Joseph, Morris, and John travel from Bournemouth to London by train to see Masterman, Joseph slips away from his nephews' overbearing stewardship and unwittingly encounters the Bournemouth Strangler, a serial killer. When the train crashes and the Strangler is killed while wearing Joseph's overcoat as a disguise, Morris and John assume his body belongs to Joseph. Morris instructs John to hide the body in a barrel so as to maintain the illusion that Joseph is still alive until after Masterman dies, and orders it sent to their house in London. Meanwhile, a statue Masterman sold to an aristocrat is being sent back to his house in another box after the buyer discovered the statue was a fake. However, the partially obscured addresses lead to the wrong boxes being delivered to the wrong houses (hence the story's title).

After Joseph, who survived the train crash unharmed, arrives at Masterman's house, his brother tries and fails to murder him and throws him out instead. When Michael discovers the body in the box that was accidentally sent to his grandfather's address, he assumes Masterman has gone through with his plan to kill Joseph and hides the body in the family piano. He hires two "undertakers" to dispose of the body, but when they find Masterman unconscious at the foot of the stairs after a fall, they assume his is the body they are to collect; Morris, who has gone to London ahead of John, sees them leave and thinks Masterman has died. Meanwhile, the piano is repossessed by debt collectors, and the Bournemouth Strangler's body is discovered there and brought to the attention of the police. The misunderstandings multiply from there...

The ensemble cast features a number of established and future stars, and most notably includes brief appearances by Tony Hancock as an incompetent police detective trying to unravel the twists and turns of the plot, and Peter Sellers as a Back-Alley Doctor whom Morris and John visit to obtain a blank death certificate to forge Joseph's death date as being after Masterman's.

This film provides examples of:

  • And Starring: Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers both get this treatment; at the end of the cast list in the opening credits, their credits are given as "Tony Hancock as the Detective / Peter Sellers as Doctor Pratt".
  • Animated Credits Opening: The film begins with an animated credits sequence featuring images that foreshadow elements of the plot, such as cats, a tombstone and a coffin with a Union Jack on it.
  • Asshole Victim: The Bournemouth Strangler dies in the train wreck - his body is mistaken for Joseph Finsbury's.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Doctor Pratt has fallen on hard times (after that unfortunate incident with the Lord Mayor's wife), living in a drunken haze in a grubby little office full of cats. He sells a blank death certificate to Morris Finsbury as part of a scheme to collect the tontine, insisting on washing his hands for even this humble task, and then absently drying them off on a cat.
  • The Butler Did It: The film has a convoluted series of events centering around a dead body and cloudy circumstances of his identity and death. At film's end the entire cast is being questioned by a police detective - Peacock, Masterman's faithful butler, gallantly takes the fall for his master and claims to have killed him. The detective says - everyone now - "The butler did it?!"
  • Claiming Via Flag: One of the tontine participants reaches the apex of a very tall mountain, plants the Union Jack "in the name of the queen", and immediately falls through the snow and ice to his death.
  • Collector of the Strange: Morris Finsbury collects rare eggs.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Dr. Pratt is a deranged-but-harmless, pathetic old soul with oodles of cats in his office/home.
  • Dead Man's Chest: The plot revolves around Morris and John concealing what they think is Joseph's corpse in the hope of collecting the tontine, packing him up in a barrel and shipping him home...but it's wrongly delivered to Masterman's house where it is found by Michael, who fears Joseph has been killed by Masterman to collect the tontine. He hides the body in a piano which is then collected by repossessors and into the attention of the police.
  • Death Montage: The film starts with a montage of various tontine members meeting grisly and hilarious ends, setting up the film's premise wherein only two are left.
  • Flower-Pot Drop: Masterman Finsbury tries, unsuccessfully, to kill his brother Joseph, and finally screams for him to leave. As Joseph leaves, Masterman hurls a couple of flowerpots at him - finding himself with an armful of flowers, Joseph calls out "Too late to apologize!"
  • The "Fun" in "Funeral": The film culminates in a chase with a horse-drawn hearse carrying the ill-gotten money from the Tontine and another hearse with a not-at-all dead Masterman in the coffin, which get tangled up with an actual funeral, the party of which includes the thought to be dead Joseph. Everyone ends up with the wrong hearse and they all converge at the funeral site. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Got Volunteered: In the aftermath of a train wreck, a military man takes charge in the chaos - "All right, I want a couple of volunteers - you, and you! Now follow me!"
  • G-Rated Drug: Old Joseph Finsbury attributes his brother's erratic behavior to a nutmeg poisoning (oblivious to the fact his brother is trying to kill him).
  • Has a Type: John Finsbury has an obsession with chambermaids and other "below stairs" ladies; when we first see him, he is seducing the chambermaid at the hotel at which he, Joseph, and Morris are staying, and Morris berates him for letting his sexual predilections get in the way of keeping Joseph alive until at least after Masterman dies. A later conversation reveals that John has got at least one chambermaid pregnant, and took her to Dr. Pratt for an abortion.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Bedridden old Masterman Finsbury receives word that he and his brother Joseph are the last two members of a tontine - he weakly tells grandson Michael "I believe the time...has last." and placidly drifts into unconsciousness. Michael solemnly draws a sheet over the old man's head...and a beat later the old man swats it off and angrily chides Michael for his poor observation (and Michael is a medical student). He meant it was time to do in his brother Joseph and collect the money.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: Morris and John Finsbury are taking their uncle Joseph on a train trip on the news that Masterman's imminent death will net them the more than £100,000 now in the tontine - after the train crashes, Morris finds a dead body he thinks is Joseph's, and tearfully curses him for selfishly dying and leaving two helpless orphans destitute.
    Morris: Now, you listen to me, Uncle Joseph, you may be dead but listen to me! You're a nasty, mean, spiteful, vindictive old man to do this to two little orphans! Your brother's on his deathbed, couldn't you have waited a day or so!? You stupid old... [thumps the box in which the body has landed]
  • Kissing Cousins: Michael tries to resist his attraction to his cousin Julia:note 
    Michael: We both know what kissing leads to, and if I may be blunt, our children would be idiots.
    Julia: Why, is there insanity in your family?
  • Meaningful Name: Finsbury Park was in the time the film is set a very smart part of London, although the area is less salubrious today.
  • No Ending: At the end, both brothers still live. Everyone is arguing and fighting with money flying around.
  • Old-Timey Ankle Taboo: The hero becomes visibly flushed by the sight of the heroine's ankle. She reacts in the same way when he rolls up his sleeve, revealing his wrist.
  • Old Windbag: Joseph Finsbury excels at telling people about useless factoids - just ask the unfortunate carriage driver who was stuck listening to him talk about the frequencies of certain words in The Bible for hours on end, and who found himself deeply regretting telling Joseph "Your company will be payment enough, sir!" when asked what fare he would charge for passage from Basingstoke to London.
  • Screaming Woman: A Running Gag that Julia thinks every movement in her house is initially the Bournemouth Strangler.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: As in the original novel, Masterman and Joseph are still alive by the end of the story, so the question of who wins the tontine is never answered.note 
  • Stab the Salad: The film begins with the establishment of a tontine - a contract where a sum of money gets inherited by the last surviving member - at a boys' school. A series of quick vignettes shows the members dying off over the decades until it settles on the bedridden, elderly Masterman Finsbury, one of the last two survivors. His grandson Michael picks up a knife, walks up to him - and hands it to him to open a letter.
  • Tontine: The events of the film are set in motion by the opening scene in which a group of children are made part of a tontine. A lawyer helpfully explains to the children - and the audience - exactly what a tontine is: "in effect, a lottery", to be won by the group's final survivor. Their parents and guardians contribute £1,000 each, and by the time the main events of the film begin, the pot has grown to over £100,000.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Several of the children who potentially stand to benefit from the tontine grow up to be too dumb to live, as shown in the Death Montage following the opening credits. Just to name two, Brian Allen Harvey orders the soldiers under his command to fire the cannon they have just reloaded, ignoring their attempts to point out that he is standing directly in the line of fire, while Oliver Pike Harmsworth is too busy telling his native guide that it is not sporting to shoot a rhinoceros before it starts charging to notice that it has long since started charging.
  • Undignified Death: The Death Montage that follows the signing of the Tontine consists of ten of these as we see that perhaps the reason the Finsbury brothers are the last surviving competitors is that they're the only ones with (barely) enough brains and luck to survive to old age. To borrow the phrase that precedes them in the closing credits (in which they are first billed), in order of disappearance:
    • Artillery sergeant Brian Allen Harvey (Jeremy Lloyd) orders his men to fire a cannon, oblivious to the fact that he is standing directly in the line of fire.
    • Amateur falconer Sydney Whitcombe Sykes (James Villiers) is attacked by his own bird when he gives the order to kill.
    • Intrepid explorer Ian Scott Fife (Graham Stark) plants a Union Flag on a mountaintop which promptly gives way under him.
    • Navy officer Leicester Young-Fielding (Dick Gregory) is hit squarely in the face by the ceremonial bottle of champagne at the christening of a ship.
    • Army officer Alan Frazer Scrope (Nicholas Parsons) is sounding the charge on a trumpet when an African native arrow flies down the bell of the instrument.
    • Industrialist James Whyte Wragg (Willoughby Goddard), investigating claims that his coal mine is unsound, is crushed by falling debris after he taps a support post with his cane.
    • Big game hunter Oliver Pike Harmsworth (Valentine Dyall) tells his guide that he will not shoot a rhinoceros until it is actually charging, unaware that it is already doing so.
    • Vyvyan Alistair Montague (Leonard Rossiter), upon dropping a handkerchief to signal the start of a pistol duel, is turned on and shot by the two duellers.
    • Elderly, wheelchair-bound industrialist Derek Lloyd Peter Digby (Hamilton Dyce) is pushed down a hill by his son, who wishes to inherit his fortune early.
    • Newly-knighted Sir Robert Park Collingwood (actor uncredited) is accidentally decapitated during the conferral of his knighthood by Queen Victoria.