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A tontine is established for twenty boys in 1818 England - a tontine being a kind of insurance wager in which money is invested by each participant, to grow with interest, with the last survivor to get the substantial payout. We watch the group dwindle until only two elderly brothers are left in 1882. One brother is watched by his nephews who will keep him alive at all costs; the other lives in ill health and poverty as the only support of his perpetually confused grandson. Statues and bodies are switched, in the wrong boxes, until everyone is sure that one (or both) of the brothers has died. Now if they can only make it seem as if the other brother died first, over a hundred thousand pounds (in Victorian England, when a pound was a pound) will be theirs. Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
And the word "whip" appears 146 times in the Bible
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote novels that studied character and its flaws: Long John Silver in "Treasure Island", Aleck Breck Stewart in "Kidnapped" and "David Balfour", James and Henry Durie in "The Master Of Ballentrae", Dr. Henry Jeckyll/Mr. Edward Hyde.... His best novels show the ambiguity of character. Yet with his interest in melodramatics he should have been a natural for writing mystery and detective stories, like his contemporaries Conan Doyle, Gilbert Chesterton, and Ernest Brahmah. They concentrated their gifts on character developments on their central story figures (Holmes and Watson, Father Brown, Max Carrados), but the basic plot development is what pulls the story along for all of them. Stevenson pulled the story plot to develop the characters instead.
Except once - "The Wrong Box". It is Stevenson's spoof on mystery and detective fiction. It was not his novel alone, but the first of three he wrote with his stepson Lloyd Osborne (to whom he told the story of "Treasure Island" before he wrote it down). Stevenson is telling the story of Masterman and Joseph Finsbury, the last two survivors of a special type of insurance form called a "tontine". It's an elaborate wager where a bunch of people put up a sum of money individually, and the last survivor gets the bulk of it. Masterman is home bound, and Joseph is a lively old bore who loves to talk and show off his preposterous knowledge of trivia (Ralph Richardson brings out the fact about the word "whip" when riding with a man holding a "whip"). Masterman (John Mills) lives with his grandson Michael (Michael Caine), and Joseph with his two greedy nephews (Morris and John - Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) and his niece Julia (Nanette Newman). Joseph does not really care about the tontine, but Masterman wants it - and is willing to speed the demise of Joseph to do it. Morris and John have to keep Joseph alive (which is not unlikely - he is in good health). Michael is not quite sure what is going on with his irascible grandfather, and Julia just knows she dislikes her two cousins Morris and John (but she really likes Michael). So the stage is set for the comedy. Along the way we meet other characters who are colorful: Dr. Pratt (Peter Sellers) - who at the drop of a hat will tell you about how he fell from medical grace to the backstreet he resides in; Peacock (Wilfred Lawson), Masterman's butler, who makes the average turtle look like it's turbocharged; the police Detective (Tony Hancock) - who can't put together a coherent idea if his life depended on it; and ...the Bournmouth Strangler (the story is from 1888, so we can guess who this character is based on).
It is a marvelous send-up on Victorian England, taking in the empire (notice the beginning when we see the demises of various members of the tontine), to the problems of railway traffic, talkative relatives, and body disposal in London in the 1880s. That the novel is not quite like the film does not matter (Michael is not a medical student but a clever barrister in the story, and John's relationship with Morris deteriorates in the story due to some money troubles), but this does not matter. It is a fun movie and well worth seeing.
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