There are few things on this blowsy Earth as good as an on-form Peter Ustinov film, and this computerised caper comedy’s as good as they get. Oosti-boosti co-wrote the screenplay, and stars as Scrubs-educated cockney thief (“’Ere! You watch your tongue! Any idiot can steal. I been em-bezz-lin’!”) Marcus Pendleton, a gruff yet lonely bachelor who talks to himself, makes wobbly faces when he talks to others, and generally cuts the least heroic figure you can imagine.
Happening on computer expert Caesar Smith (Robert Morley) in a gentlemen’s club, he sweet-talks the hapless boffin into an extended moth-chasing sabbatical in the jungle, and takes over the man’s identity in order to wangle his way in charge of insurance company Ta-Can-Co’s computer and program it to post him x million quid in cheques, via various made-up organisations. He gets past the dim, horny company exec (Karl Malden) and his scheming second-in-command (Bob Newhart as the excellently named Willard C Gnatpole) with applied British bumptiousness, taking advantage of their nervous insecurity (a fine reversal of the usual scenario, where the Yanks get all the brashness). Falling into his scheme is lonely, serially incompetent, flute-playing neighbour Maggie Smith, who falls for him during an oddly touching musical duet scene, but who turns out to have more to her than meets Ustinov’s eye.
It’s full of great moments – Ustinov securing release from Wormwood Scrubs by helping prison governor Peter Jones out with his tax return (Shawshank Redemption ahoy!); the delightfully circular computer security system hacking routine (Malden: “As long as that blue light is on, the computer is safe from embezzlers.” Ustinov (later on, to computer): “How do I disable security?” Computer: “Disconnect blue light”); Ustinov using a tried and tested combination of bluff and all-night study to get past the security measures the supercomputer, until he spies a charlady doing just that, by kicking a loose panel to expose the vital circuitry, on which she proceeds to warm the pot; Ustinov conducting a symphony of tape reels and flashing lights as his scam is set in motion; Malden caught by Brazilian customs officer Caesar Romero smuggling a jar of instant coffee into the country provoking the official into an indignantly disgusted rant at the American’s lack of taste; Bob’s awkward trip to the actual Beatles’ actual Apple boutique; the desperately sad card trick bit with Usters and Smith (any idiot can foist a ‘comedy of embarrassment’ scene on a pair of lonely characters – it takes a solid talent like Wor Peter’s to bring this level of warmth to such proceedings); Smith’s finely judged cockney klutz routine; and the exciting and rather pleasingly neat ending, to name a few.
Throw in plenty of old school computer sets, a classically ‘swinging’ late ’60s editing style and lush photography as ruddy and ebullient as Oosti himself, and a title song from Lulu and you’re made. Esteemed cinema critic Stanley Kaufmann said of this film that, while it never makes you laugh out loud, it does keep you smiling delightedly for the full two hours. We’ll take that, thank you very much.