Directed by Bryan Forbes, the man behind The Stepford Wives, and with a cast that includes Michael Caine, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Tony Hancock, Nanette Newman, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Peter Sellers, John Le Mesurier and Irene Handl you’d presume you’d have a comedy blockbuster on your hands. And you almost have, most of the time it’s only Caine, Cook, Moore, Newman, Mills and Richardson who are involved in the insanity of it all, but the majority of the others turn in strong cameos.
Starting in a stuffy Victorian school, a Tontine is created, where each child is given one thousand pound sterling with the twist being that the last surviving individual will win all of the money. Skip forward a generation and a number of very funny unfortunate deaths (including appearances from a pre-fame Nicholas Parsons, Leonard Rossiter and Valentine Dyall), and only the far healthier than he lets on Masterman Finsbury (John Mills) and the fact obsessed and extraordinarily boring Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson) are left alive, and thanks to shrewd investments and interest the tontine is now worth over a hundred thousand pounds.
Michael (Michael Caine) looks after his Grandfather Masterman and seems to genuinely care for him, while John (Dudley Moore) and Maurice (Peter Cook) are doing everything they can to keep their Grandfather Joseph alive simply because they want the money. Throw in to the mix a love interest for Michael in the form of the death obsessed Cousin Julia (Nanette Newman) and a love interest for John in the form of any woman with a pulse, along with a brief appearance from the mysterious Bournemouth Strangler, and you’ve soon got a big old farce on your hands.
It’s an enjoyable film for the first hour or so, with Peter Sellers as a very dodgy cat obsessed doctor having some superb scenes with Peter Cook, with Sellers’ delivery of the line “Don’t sit on that moggy sir, she’s the finest ratter in the East End” leading to the biggest laugh out loud moment of the film. Meanwhile Caine and Newman’s romance is an amusingly orchestrated slice of silliness, and Cook and Moore’s skulduggery, and Richardson and Mills dislike of each all, leads to a lot of very funny moments. The script is very sharp and there’s some amusing oddness where The Bournemouth Strangler’s murderous ways according to Caine are “Something to do with the weather”, while the latter confesses to having “A burning desire to nod” at Julia, but such awful behaviour is of course frowned upon by his elders.
The final half hour is a little all over the place though, the various farcical mix up’s and loss of bodies isn’t as funny as the film seems to think it is, and there’s an action packed horse and carriage chase that keeps on interrupting a brass band that isn’t that amusing at all. Tony Hancock turns up as a police detective who is deeply suspicious as to what is going on but is given annoyingly little to do, to the extent that I wonder if his role was massively cutdown in the edit, Irene Handl only gets to stand around and grieve her dead husband, while the finale has its moments it’s not as satisfying as you might hope.
Given everything which happens in the first sixty minutes I was more than happy to label this as a “Cult Classic” but the ending is so average that it lost it a star and I can’t help but feel frustrated by the fact that it showed so much promise but then failed to deliver upon it. File under “Films which are fine for a lazy Sunday afternoon” then, but it came so close to being something very special that I’ll be forever slightly annoyed by it.