When it’s on: Thursday, 8 January (11.00 am)
Ronald Neame was a stalwart of the British film industry who rose to prominence through collaborating with David Lean during a very productive period during the 1940s. Oscar nominated and carrying prestigious credits for writing and cinematography, the move into directing was inevitable, and Neame helmed three British productions before The Million Pound Note (retitled Man with a Million for the American market).
It’s notable now for the casting of an A-list Hollywood star, Gregory Peck, in the lead part, an unusual move for an actor of his calibre appearing in a UK picture. Peck plays Henry Adams, stranded in London at the turn of the twentieth century and without a penny to his name. By chance, he’s picked up by two wealthy eccentric brothers, played by Ronald Squire and Wilfred Hyde-White, who use him for the purpose of settling a bet. Their wager boils down to this – Adams is given a Bank of England note for one million pounds, one of only two issued, and is told that if he can hold onto it for a month then they will give him a job. The brothers are attempting to work out if the mere presence of the note will open doors for Adams, that he will be treated deferentially by the effete establishment and effectively be able to live for free because of his newfound wealthy status.
The first thing the starving Adams does is enter a restaurant and order a slap-up meal. At first, the staff are distrustful of him, with his unkempt appearance and shabby clothes, but the note’s appearance changes everything; he’s told there’s no charge by the suddenly bowing and scraping owners. After a slapstick scene in which he nearly loses the expensive scrap of paper to the wind, Adams finds he life has been transformed. The note’s presence is enough to gift him a tailored wardrobe. He gets to stay in the bridal suite of London’s most illustrious hotel, in the process evicting the Duke of Frognal (A.E. Matthews) and is introduced to the elite circles of the capital’s high society. Accompanying him is unemployed strongman Rock (Reginald Beckwith), the Sancho to his Don Quixote, and love blossoms when he meets rich Portia (Jane Griffiths). But there’s trouble when the disgruntled Duke, forced to stay in a lesser room, gets his revenge when he steals the million pound note. As abruptly as his status changes for the better, the illusion of his wealth finding its ultimate expression when he lends his name to a gold mine and the share price goes through the roof, so the note’s absence finds all the people to whom he owes money gathering for payback…
It’s an Ealing comedy in all but name as Adams learns that the impression of status counts for everything in London, whilst the absence of it means nothing. The biting satire of the subject presents food for thought, but in reality The Million Pound note is a good natured work, poking game fun at the class-obsessed English society rather than turning the narrative into anything threatening. There’s no hard-hitting message a la It’s a Wonderful Life. It helps that Peck is on fine form. Apparently, he had great fun playing Adams and was really looking forward to acting alongside Matthews, a veteran of silent cinema who supplied his own costume from his wardrobe. Beckwith is also notable as the silent but indomitable Rock.
The Million Pound Note was filmed in crisp Technicolor, with London looking suitably glorious and all the locations and sets showing up well. It’s a light picture, treated lightly, and perhaps ‘treat’ is the best word for a comedy that never outstays its welcome and features a star at the top of his game putting in such an instantly likeable performance. As an added bonus, there’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameo appearance from The Bride of Frankenstein‘s Ernest Thesinger.
The Million Pound Note: ***