Witty, lively, and consistently hilarious, this British farce has several family members fighting tooth-and-nail to acquire a vast inheritance that will only go to one of two elderly brothers, and his family. The film opens showing a trust being set up for a group of young boys, with the lump sum to go to the last surviving boy; we then jump forward to when only two are still living. The eldest, Masterman Finnsbury, confides to his son and caretaker, aspiring doctor Michael, that he feels deathly ill and that he desires to see his long-lost brother, Joseph. Joseph, who has two young, scheming nephews that keep him locked away awaiting the day the trust falls into their grasp, gladly accepts his brother’s ailing wish, and takes his nephews along with him to London. However, on the train, there is an accident, and in the confusion, the nephews are confused into thinking that their uncle was killed, while he, in his typical befuddled fashion, merely walked away from the scene. They conspire to go to London and pretend that Joseph is still alive just long enough for Masterman to finally expire. Meanwhile, it turns out that Masterman has been planning, unbeknowst to Michael, to murder his brother upon arriving by his bedside, which, inevitably, backfires, causing a chain of events that leads the entire extended family into a mass sense of confusion, unjustified hostility, and greed.
The most noteworthy element of this film, from our current perspective, is its incredible cast of comic English performers. Produced at a magical crossroads between old and new waves of cinema, the film features two of the best performers of yesteryear (John Mills and Ralph Richardson as the two elderly brothers) alongside several of the benchmark British performers of the latter 20th-century (Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, and Peter Cook). Ostensibly an ensemble film, the picture gives all of its cast members time to shine. Moore and Cook, as the nephews, have a great, mischievous interplay that optimally utilizes the chemistry they developed over many years; while Cook, the more straight-laced of the two, gets the bulk of the screentime, Moore’s skirt-chasing schtick gives him more than enough room to create a memorable, deeply-flawed character to add to his roster. An impossibly young Michael Caine, playing it mostly straight as the romantic lead, is endearing and charismatic, evenly matched by a goofy Nannette Newman as his object of desire. Mills gets consistent laughs from his mostly bed-ridden role, Tony Hancock is appropriately goofy in his third-act appearance as a detective, and Sellers, as a quack who the nephews consult, is predictably sharp-as-a-tack and spry, once again utilizing his makeup, costume, and props for optimal comic effect (although it could be argued that his scenes have very little, or nothing, to do with the rest of the film, and could easily have been excised for pace IF Sellers wasn’t a consistently hilarious freaking genius). But it’s Richardson, as the constantly befuddled, yet gleefully upbeat Joseph, who, somewhat unexpectedly, steals the film from the more comically inclined names in the cast. He wanders throughout the film, constantly frustrating everyone he comes across with his unstoppable dispensing of factoids and trivia, and never once appearing to have a full grasp of his current situation (including at his brothers deathbed). His is the standout comic invention of the film, and perfectly complements the other masterful, adept performances.
The tone of the film is that of a madcap farce, akin to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Great Race, but with a decidedly British flavor. Instead of slapstick and physical pratfalls being the main source of comedy, the film instead employs situational humor, misunderstanding, and astute character work for its laughs. This gives the film a consistent sense of intelligence and professionalism, even while multiple Academy Award winners (and nominees) are tumbling over each other in the pursuit of cash. Another interesting element to the movie’s sense of humor is its portrayal of the English bourgeois lifestyle; these people are not poor people trying to get rich, they are well-off people trying to get even richer. They are a comfortable, well-educated bunch who are only plagued by their vices and their selfish desires, and the ones with no interest in the money (Michael, his love interest, and Joseph) are too clueless to gain any sort of control over the situation, or the other family members. The idea that this family, long estranged by pettiness and bad blood, could only be brought together by mutual greed and potential class advancement is never lingered on, but made abundantly clear by the film’s end. The British nature of it all makes it far more classy and witty than its American counterparts, and creates a unique sense of time and place that makes the film a truly memorable, noteworthy comedy of its era.
Highly Recommended to fans of British farces like The Ladykillers or A Fish Called Wanda, or of the fantastic cast. This film is not readily available on Netflix, but you can watch it on youtube (in fine quality, seen below), which I highly recommend for a great exhibition of mid-1960′s British comedy.