Thursday, May 09, 2013

R.I.P.: Bryan Forbes (1926-2013), The man who made The Wrong Box

There was a time when I could repeat verbatim dozens of lines from The Wrong Box, Bryan Forbes’ delightfully daft dark comedy about the madcap scramble for an immense inheritance by Victorians both proper and otherwise.

It helped, of course, that the movie – filled with such deft farceurs as Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, John Mills and Peter Sellers – also was an all-time favorite of my mentor, the late Ralph Thomas Bell, former chairman of the journalism department at Loyola University in New Orleans. During my college years, and for several years afterwards, we often would greet each other with snippets of the 1966 comedy’s droll dialogue, more or less in the fashion of latter-day Monty Python fanatics exchanging quips about dead parrots and killer rabbits. Indeed, whenever we got together as our friendship endured long after my graduation, there was a scarcely a time when one of us didn't make the other laugh out loud simply by saying, in meticulously deadpan style: "We haven't heard the last of this." (The line makes absolutely no sense out of context -- which doubtless increased its value to us as a wonderful sort of private joke.)

Occasionally, we would get on an extended riff while recalling this scene between Peter Cook as a young man in desperate need of a death certificate -- for reasons entirely too complicated too recapitulate here -- and Peter Sellers as a disreputable doctor who's a tad too found of feline companionship. (Note the exchange at approximately the 2:40 mark, when Cook actually asks for the aforementioned certificate.)

Oddly enough, it wasn't until several years after I first saw The Wrong Box that I realized there was yet another reason why I was right to be impressed by the film: Just one year before the comedy reached theaters, director Forbes impressed audiences with the harshly gritty World War II drama King Rat, which featured George Segal in one of his career-best performances as a cynical U.S. Army corporal determined to survive by any means necessary in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Talk about demonstrating your versatility as a filmmaker. Little wonder that, back in the day, I couldn't conceive of there being any connection between two such disparate movies.

Forbes -- who passed away Wednesday at age 86 after a lengthy illness -- boasted a resume that also included such widely admired films as Whistle Down the Wind, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and The Whisperers, and one truly bizarre concoction, the kinky crime drama Deadfall (starring Michael Caine as a cat burglar who falls for his older partner's very alluring wife), which isn't often discussed in polite company. I have very fond memories of his Long Ago, Tomorrow (a.k.a. The Raging Moon), an unabashedly sentimental and affecting bittersweet love story starring Nanette Newman (Forbes' wife) and Malcolm McDowell (in one of his rare roles as a romantic lead). I am rather less enamored of what's arguably Forbes' best-known film, The Stepford Wives (1975), though I have it on good authority that the 2004 remake (which I've never much wanted to see) makes it look like Citizen Kane.

By all accounts, Forbes enjoyed a full and fulfilling life even when he wasn't directing movies, or writing scripts for other directors. (He shot photos for the album covers of two Elton John albums -- Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road -- and wrote some well-received novels, and two volumes of an autobiography.) I was never privileged to meet the gentleman, so I was never able to tell him just how much The Wrong Box meant to me, and to my friend Tom Bell. But never mind: I strongly suspect he was never at a loss for other people who told him him more or less the same thing.

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