Review for The Wrong Arm of the Law
I have this fond childhood memory of a black and white comedy with Peter Sellers, Lionel Jeffries and Bernard Cribbins. When I started writing for this site, the opportunity to review Two Way Stretch seemed to be a chance to revisit that nostalgic recollection. Only it turned out to be the wrong film, a rather unimpressive comedy that got a very lacklustre presentation on DVD. It’s taken this long for me to get the chance to review The Wrong Arm of the Law, this time on Blu-ray, the other monochrome comedy starring Peter Sellers, Lionel Jeffries and Bernard Cribbins. I hope the nostalgia goggles still work.
Pearly Gates has a good life, running the prestigious Maison Jules fashion house in London, catering to the elite, and dating one of his catwalk models. But that’s just a front. He makes a much more lucrative living running a crime syndicate from the back of his shop; his clientele’s gossip offering plenty of targets for his band of thieves. Only now there is a new gang in town, a trio of Australians are disguising themselves as police, “nicking” criminals in the act, and relieving them of their ill-gotten gains. And this “IPO” caper is hitting all the gangs in the city. They’ve got someone on the inside of Pearly’s gang, and they’re making the police look bad as well. Pearly comes up with a radical plan; team up with the police to get the IPO gang.
The Wrong Arm of the Law gets a 1.66:1 pillarboxed 1080p transfer. The audio here is PCM 2.0 English with optional SDH English subtitles. The transfer is excellent. The image is clear and sharp, with excellent detail. The print is clean and free of damage and signs of age. The contrast is outstanding, making the most of the monochrome source. Shadow detail is vivid, and darker scenes are clear and well-defined. The audio is clear, warm and effective. The dialogue too is clear, and the film’s jazzy themes and quirky score work really well. I remember how disappointing those old Peter Sellers DVDs were when films like Two Way Stretch came to disc. If they’d had this kind of restoration to begin with, those discs would have been far easier to recommend.
The disc boots to an animated menu. It seems all Studiocanal back catalogue discs now come with a ‘historical attitudes’ disclaimer ahead of the film. I’m hard pressed to think of something in The Wrong Arm of the Law that could offend. The following extras are on the disc.
The Long Arm of the Screenwriter – John Antrobus Remembers The Wrong Arm of the Law (19:43)
Behind the Scenes Stills Gallery (0:59 slideshow)
Original Trailer (3:11)
I think Studiocanal have taken to throwing a ‘historical attitudes’ disclaimer on all of their back catalogue releases, just in case someone chooses to be offended by something, There’s very little, if anything at all in The Wrong Arm of the Law that had any politically correct alarm bells ringing in me, and I’m fairly clued in to modern attitudes. I doubt that Studiocanal are referring to the ‘it’s a fair cop’ pseudo-camaraderie between the police and the criminal fraternity, which I doubt was ever actually a thing. Criminals avoid antagonising the police, and go quietly when apprehended, and the police don’t have to get too overbearing when dealing with the criminals. As if that ever happened anywhere outside of fiction! Other than that, there might be a few national stereotypes on screen (with Peter Sellers wheeling out a French accent a year before The Pink Panther hit the cinemas), and the kind of non-threatening misogyny that was typical of gender stratification in the post-war years. In other words , it’s not worth thinking about in a film that was a mainstay of the matinee TV schedules when I was growing up.
I realise now that this was the film that I recalled with fondness, not Two Way Stretch, and I enjoyed revisiting The Wrong Arm of the Law a whole lot more. Peter Sellers is the star of the film as Pearly Gates, but he’s surprisingly not the best thing about the film. The character of Pearly Gates is rather single note, a criminal genius mastermind who, apart from one Achilles heel is nigh on infallible. He runs his gang with charisma and panache, and his skill garners the respect of all of the rival gangs in the city, to the point where they can co-operate. At least that’s the way he appears through much of the film, and it’s the people around him, the supporting cast that get the space to shine, creating quirky and memorable characters. Bernard Cribbins’ Nervous O’Toole is a case in point, a rival gang leader whose moniker is most certainly justified.
The film belongs to Lionel Jeffries however as ‘Nosey’ Parker, the police inspector who has made it his life work to bring Gates and his gang down, and who has constantly been thwarted. This is a wonderful character, rich with obsequious gormlessness, who tries, vainly to present a steel will to the criminal fraternity, while sucking up to his superiors. Pearly Gates can outwit this lawman in his sleep, but when the IPO gang show up, impersonating the police to nab the gangs’ ill-gotten gains from under their noses, both the police and the gangs have common cause.
So it is that Pearly Gates proposes the controversial plan to work with the police to stop the Australian gang, and while he can convince the other gangs and his own team, convincing the police is more of a challenge. It’s Parker who is his way in, using his ambition against him, assuring him that getting the credit for nabbing the IPO gang will be a significant feather in his cap. And Parker’s ambition, and having his ego massaged sends him down a path to corruption.
The film comes from that era of “it’s a fair cop”, which means it also comes from that era where the good guys always won, which is where Pearly’s Achilles heel comes back in, his cast-iron confidence in his infallibility. You can understand just how the IPO gang got one over on him, but as the film careers towards its conclusion, you can sense the writers’ contrivance steering the movie to a 1960s socially acceptable finale.
None of that really matters of course, unless you’re micro-analysing the film. What matters is that The Wrong Arm of the Law is entertaining, funny in all the right ways, and despite the disclaimer at the head of the disc, is inoffensive enough to be considered a family film. Studiocanal’s Blu-ray presentation offers excellent AV, and some nice extras. It’s well worth watching.