Judge Adam Arseneau has figured it out. It's the left one. The wrong arm, that is. Just in case you were wondering.
It's the left one. The wrong arm. In case you were wondering.
If you are looking for a dose of dry, low-key, sardonic British wit, look no further than The Wrong Arm of the Law, a Peter Sellers crime caper spoof rarely seen by anybody. The reason for this, as it turns out, is the dozens and dozens of other, similar movies that completely overshadow its existence. Luckily, Sellers and company save the film from total oblivion with their subtle and wry performances.
Facts of the Case
In the London underground world of crime, nobody runs a better racket than Pearly Gates (Peter Sellers). By day, he fronts an haute-couture clothing shop (complete with svelte smoking jacket and faux French accent) where he gathers info about the latest jewelry acquisitions of London's elite. By night, his gang of thieves set out to rob the wealthy debutants blind.
Unfortunately, things have started to take a turn for the worse. It seems the police have suddenly acquired an uncanny ability to predict the actions of Gates's gang and show up seconds after the robbery has taken place to confiscate the stolen goods. After job after job goes down the pipes, with dawning clarity, Pearly realizes two things.
First, his gang is falling victim to another gang of rival thieves, who dress up as police officers in order to alleviate the ill-gotten gains right out of their hands! And secondly, that there must be a traitor somewhere in his midst! Nobody is above suspicion either…not even his sultry girlfriend, who seems to take a keen interest in his activities.
The Wrong Arm of the Law is a dry British comedy; not like a bottle of white wine is dry, but like the Sahara Desert is. Jokes fly right past you with barely a noise, and you find yourself rewinding the film, trying to catch the jokes as they fly by, like a flittering butterfly slipping through your fingers. This is not a criticism of the film itself so much as a polite observation; at its core, The Wrong Arm of the Law is a cute and harmless gangster spoof, but a laugh riot it is not.
Sellers keeps this film rolling (albeit a slow roll) with his deadpan performance as Cockney crime lord Pearly Gates, but always with a tiny half-smile always on his face, as if he has a hard time taking the role seriously. It is an incredibly subtle and amusing performance, but this is indicative of main problem with The Wrong Arm of the Law. Subtlety be the name of this film, and when everything is executed with impeccable subtlety, in the deafening silence that remains there is nothing that stands out as noteworthy or exceptional. As a gangster spoof, it plays too straight to be hilarious, but as a serious film, it is far too wry and playful to be taken straight. Despite good performances from Sellers and the supporting cast, it exists in that comfortable-but-unfulfilling middle ground that, sadly, most films ultimately end up in, doomed to certain obscurity…too good to be notoriously bad, but too bad to be memorable.
The Wrong Arm of the Law is not a bad film, by any means. In a languid sort of way, it exudes a certain grace, wit, and charm that is slightly endearing. Though the first part is rather slow, it gets better as it picks up speed, especially when the bumbling police department gets wind of the IPO scam (impersonating a police officer…one of the oldest tricks in the book!). It ends with a particularly satisfying, over-the-top sequence of police sting, bank robbery, Aston Martin car chase, and massive fistfight, done with a typical lighthearted British comedic cheekiness. There is lightheartedness to the film that makes it both sweet and dull at the same time, and nary a single gun is ever depicted, despite all the robbing, car chasing, brawling, and otherwise stressful activity afoot.
The gangsters are ineffectually harmless in their ineptitude, and the police officers are slapstick in their clueless bumbling. Thus, comedy ensues…or so I'm told. In particular, the bumbling, over-eager Inspector Parker (affectionately referred to as "Nosey," obviously), played by Lionel Jeffries, plays off Sellers particularly well, and their scenes together are the highlight of the film. Also, blink and you'll miss Michael Caine in an uncredited bit part. I know I did.
The full screen transfer is something of a pickle. On the one hand, the black and white photography has been newly remastered for this DVD. Black levels are stronger than black coffee, and detail shines through with exceptional clarity. On the other hand, the film is still very damaged, suffering from terrible holes, flecks of dirt and dust, and vertical scratches running down entire segments of film. And while the black levels are quite luscious, at times the contrast seems to have been rendered far too high…the blacks look deep and rich, but the whites are almost blinding to the eye, and faces disappear behind halos of excessive black/white contrast. Plus, the detail starts to get a bit funny upon close inspection…nasty jagged lines start cropping up, with some shimmering along the edges, and things get awfully pixelated and jagged when zoomed up close. Overall, The Wrong Arm of the Law certainly sports a nice enough transfer, highlighting some excellent black and white photography considering the relative obscurity of the title, but the transfer is far from perfection.
The audio is very mono, and metronomes back and forth between fairly competent and well balanced to a cracking, distorted mess. This film definitely feels its age, but for the most part, the sound is quite passable, suffering no major defects beyond the occasional distortion or crackle. The soundtrack is quite charming, a rompy, jazz ensemble of upright bass, muted trumpets, and strings that fits the madcap mayhem that ensues throughout the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To call this DVD "bare-bones" would be doing bones everywhere a disservice. This is less than nothing. We're talking scene access and play movie here. Not a single thing more. Not even liner notes. Heck, even a cast biography or DVD credits would look good right about now.
An incredibly no-frills DVD release, The Wrong Arm of the Law will most likely appeal to Sellers fans or connoisseurs of early British comedy, but most people would glide over it without giving it a second glance. And there is no getting around the fact that, for most people, The Wrong Arm of the Law is not even worthy of that first glance.
Still, the film is totally harmless, and at times, even worth a chuckle or two. But ultimately, The Wrong Arm of the Law is merely a footnote in both the world of British comedy films and in Sellers's filmography. But if you're into footnotes, give it a go. You can do a lot worse.
Eh, why not? Not guilty. I'm feeling generous today.
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