Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This film's prologue shows us a bunch of schoolboys getting enrolled in a tontine, an odd lottery-type arrangement in which they all have money invested for them, and the last one left alive gets all the money. In a quick montage, we see them all as adults, one by one, dropping dead in bizarre accidents, until elderly brothers John Mills and Ralph Richardson are the last survivors. The perpetually ill Mills (who isn’t really quite as sick as everyone assumes) invites his estranged brother to visit him, intending to kill him and make it look like an accident so he will get the money. But during a train wreck, Richardson vanishes, leading his greedy nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) to assume he’s dead, a fact they try to hide, hoping that Mills will drop dead soon and the two of them can claim the money in Richardson’s name. Throw into the mix Mills’ nice-guy grandson (Michael Caine), a comically addled butler (Wilfrid Lawson), a lovely young woman (Nanette Newman, pictured below with Mills) who is so highly-strung, she shrieks at the drop of a hat, and a coffin containing a body that everyone assumes is Richardson's, and a great deal of humor, both verbal and slapstick, ensues, climaxing in a hysterical funeral procession.

This black comedy, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, starts a little slowly but picks up steam and winds up being one fun roller-coaster ride. All the performances are wonderful, including Peter Sellers in what amounts to a cameo as a cat-loving alcoholic doctor, but the gem here is Lawson, an actor I’d never seen before, as the butler. His career was in decline because of a drinking problem (in fact, he would die of a heart attack just months after the release of this film), but he’s quite funny here. One of the best moments is when Cook, a collector of eggs, struts about in his house saying, “Listen to me, all you eggs!” A little-known comedy classic which deserves a DVD release. [TCM]

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