The imdb calls this a remake of Will Hay's Convict 99
(1938), but I'd like to see their working. The two films are based on the same scenario, but Convict 99
has more plot, bigger laughs and is far more outrageous. It's considerably more interesting than this remake, but on the upside this is a charming little Peter Sellers effort that's highly watchable if approached on its own merits.
What the two films have in common is the idea of a prison that's run more like a holiday camp, from which some inmates break out one night to pull a job. What's different is pretty much everything else. The protagonist of Convict 99
was Will Hay's prison governor and it took nearly half the film to get him into the job and mismanaging the place beyond all imagining. That's the point where Two Way Stretch begins. Maurice Denham is playing the Will Hay role and he's as weak and stupid as his predecessor, but much more realistic and not a particularly important character in the film. Our heroes are Peter Sellers, David Lodge and Bernard Cribbins, three cellmates who got banged up for the same job and whose sentences are almost up. However it soon becomes clear to them that prison is the perfect place to commit crimes, since when the police come around you'll have the perfect alibi. "Can't have been me, guv. I was in jug." The only tricky bit is the minor practical detail of breaking out in the middle of the night without being noticed, doing the job and then just as unobtrusively breaking back in again.
You can see already that this is a much more conventional film than its predecessor. It's a caper movie. The prison governor isn't an affront against all decency, but merely an obstacle to be manipulated. Our heroes are criminals who want to commit crimes and there's no attempt at portraying them in any other light. Nice and straightforward. You know where you are. In fairness this can be amusing when we meet their womenfolk and learn that Irene Handl and Liz Fraser can be every bit as felonious as the men, if not considerably more so when it comes to Handl. She never got a role this good in the Carry On films, smuggling housebreaking implements under her coat and berating Cribbins for letting down the family honour by being a good boy in prison and never causing the screws any trouble. She's one of the film's most memorable characters.
The result of all this is that the ludicrous things the prisoners get away with aren't as funny as you'd think. They're amusing, but the holiday camp air in prison is the starting point for the story rather than something it's been building up to. I came away feeling rather as if the filmmakers had wanted to take a few swings at prison reform and the idea of decency towards convicts, although in fairness the script does tend to single out its few hard-nosed authority figures for particular humiliation. Lionel Jeffries is playing Chief P.O. "Sour" Crout, an unsympathetic, aggressive warder with an occasionally squeaky voice who turns up after a while to play the antagonist role. Naturally he gets blown up, dropped into a hole and so on. Similarly Thorley Walters's Col. Parkright gets a bucket of water on his head. To be honest I wasn't wild about all that. It's a bit Carry On, whereas the rest of the film feels more realistic thanks to the grounded performances of Sellers, Denham, Wilfrid Hyde-White and the others.
Mind you, having said that, there are a lot of Carry On stars in this film. Cribbins and Fraser are probably the most closely associated with that series, although David Lodge would join up later in the 1970s. Admittedly he was in Carry On Regardless
as well, but everyone's in that one. Furthermore I'm afraid I only recognised Hyde-White from Carry On Nurse
, while Irene Handl and Cyril Chamberlain will be familiar to anyone who's watched the early, Norman Hudis ones. Beryl Reid makes a brief appearance and I don't remember her doing any Carry Ons, but she was in St Trinians and that's nearly the same thing.
Other actors of note are Warren Mitchell in a cameo as a tailor and of course... yes, Peter Sellers. He's the lead and he's playing it pretty straight. The comedy comes from the situation and the ensemble rather than Sellers himself, with the film only having one comedy character in Irene Handl. Cribbins gets close at times, but that's because he's Bernard Cribbins. Sellers is buttoned up tight here, as an intelligent but not always very friendly career criminal who's always got himself under control. In his first scene with Wilfrid Hyde-White, he's even menacing. What he achieves is noteworthy because giving the role to someone like Frankie Howerd would have turned this into Children's Film Foundation nonsense, but Sellers keeps such a firm lid on things that you never doubt the reality of what should theoretically have been ludicrous. In fairness though, Maurice Denham plays an important role in this too.
The script holds up well almost until the end. It knows exactly what it's aiming for and it sets about its job efficiently, resulting in another of those black-and-white British comedies we used to do so well. Almost everything hangs together well, but I didn't quite buy the ending. Wilfrid Hyde-White's conman goes off on his own and gets arrested, which is either alien mind control rays or a deliberate attempt to double-cross his friends. The latter seems more plausible to me, especially if you take Hyde-White's performance into account, but unfortunately this option makes him look as stupid as the other one since Sellers and co. aren't significantly troubled by the police while Hyde-White goes to jail. This could have been made to work, but it needed another scene or two to join the dots for the audience.
1. Did they have to use the word "nig-nogs"? The implication, fleeting though it is, might seem to be that stealing diamonds is all right if their rightful owner has brown skin. Admittedly he's a sheik and obscenely rich, but the haul at stake is two million pounds sterling in 1960. Yikes.
2. Three men to a cell? The Will Hay film gave you one to yourself!
This is a nice little film. You wouldn't call it challenging, but it's got a strong cast, a memorable comic scenario and a realistic tone that keeps everything impressively under control. I wasn't wild about the slapstick, but there's much worse out there in British comedies of that period. If you enjoyed this, by the way, apparently Sellers, Cribbins and Jeffries can be seen in similar roles a few years later in Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), with Sellers and Cribbins again playing the crooks and Jeffries an officer of the law. You wouldn't call this a classic film, but it's a solid, entertaining one.