There’s an odd tone to this comedy about that British obsession: class. The narrative arc is basically about come-uppance. But you would expect in any movie dealing with the upper-class that it is the poor man who comes out on top. But that’s not the case here and it’s not the case because, basically, the movie makers have decided that the confident charming guy buoyed up by a wealthy background should hold sway over the insecure chap undermined by his lack of breeding.
I doubt if they expected audiences to feel sorry for the jumped-up martinet Lt.Col Southey (John Mills) whose cushy number in post-war Germany is disrupted by the arrival of suave Capt Ainslie (James Mason). The former is reminded by the latter that he was once a lowly clerk in the stockbroking firm of which the captain, by dint of birth, held a managerial position. Soon Ainslie wins over the officers and humiliates Southey at every turn. To gain revenge, Southey informs on the junior officer who is arrested with illicit goods at the customs.
Several years later, Ainslie lives the life of Riley in Tahiti, beautiful girl Belle Annie (Rosenda Monteros) in tow catering to his every whim and under the false impression that he will soon take her back with him to London. He makes a living playing poker, and when luck runs against him can rely on the easily corrupted local police officer to keep his creditors at bay. Into this ostensible paradise arrives Southey, now chairman of an international hotel company, so important he can swan around the world answering to no one.
I had expected that having made it to the top of his profession by dint of hard work rather than accident of birth or having made the right connections, that Southey would have rid himself of his inferiority complex and that, somehow, he would get revenge on Ainslie for the humiliation in Germany. But that proves not to be the case and, in fact, any mention that Southey was once Ainslie’s mere clerk brings the high-flying businessman down to earth and he reverts to his previous jumped-up bumptious persona.
Only momentarily does Southey gain the upper hand, when the broke Ainslie seeks employment, but that lasts only until Southey reveals the part he played in Ainslie being cashiered from the Army. All along there’s been a sub-plot of a jealous Chinese storekeeper Chong (Herbert Lom, would you believe) trying to ease Ainslie out of the way so that Belle Annie will return to him. Chong arranges for a thug to bump off Ainslie. But when Ainslie survives the assault he blames Southey so that he can have the pleasure of ruining Southey’s career when he is kicked off the island.
I can’t have been the only viewer to sympathise with Southey, the man who got to high-ranking positions in the Army and business through his own hard graft while charmers like Ainslie used their class to ease their passage. I had imagined that it would be Southey who got his revenge, employing Ainslie in a lowly position rather than the other way round. And it may just be me but I didn’t believe the suggestion in the final scene that any enmity Ainslie felt towards Southey was all in Southey’s head.
Be that as it may, the acting carries this one. John Mills adds a comic element to his stiff-upper-lip officer last seen in the more dramatic Tunes of Glory (1960) while James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is the essential cad who can get away with anything thanks to bucketloads of charm.
Several scenes stand out. You wonder if the famed Robert De Niro “you talkin’ to me” in Taxi Driver (1976) had its origins in the scene where Mills talks to himself in a mirror to build up his confidence before confronting Mason. The scenes where Mason dupes the police officer into believing the cop’s novel is a work of genius are very funny. Mason also takes the mickey out of a middle-aged Englishwomen by pretending to be a native Hawaiian.
And that’s not forgetting the exuberance of Rosenda Monteros – mistakenly given the “and introducing” credit when she had previously appeared as the love interest in The Magnificent Seven (1960) – not quite as dumb as she sometimes appears, able to con Chong out of new dresses and ready at a moment’s notice to run away with an athletic young sailor. Not to mention, too, that her bare derriere makes an appearance in a bathing scene rather risqué for the period.
Debut of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (Life at the Top, 1965, also dealing primarily with class) who has the sense to leave the actors to it. Written by Ivan Foxwell (A Touch of Larceny, 1960), it sticks too closely to the source novel by Geoffrey Cotterell, lumbering the movie with one sub-plot and a couple of characters too many, but excellent when concentrating on the warring protagonists.
Setting the class elements apart, this is all good fun, and the jousting between two of the greatest British actors of all time makes it more than well worth a viewing. It was a big hit in Britain at the time, not quite in the category of Dr No – oddly termed “a bizarre comedy drama” by trade magazine Kine Weekly and – second to Cliff Richard musical The Young Ones in the annual box office chart – but easily in the Top 25.
Setting aside my reservations about the tone and the perspective, I found this far more enjoyable than I expected as result of witnessing two class acts at the top of their game.