Before watching the movie:
The concept sounds like it could be a stage play (it doesn’t appear to be), though the setting deserves a film. A father and daughter team travel up and down the Riviera posing as newlyweds (ew) to scam resort goers. Of course, she wants out, and she meets a romantic lead who might present an escape.
The only way a mid-century British comedy can go wrong (I hope) is by being too dry for a modern American audience, but even though it’s almost certainly not as madcap as it looks, this should still be fun.
After watching the movie:
Victor and Claire Hemsley check in to a fancy Riviera hotel as a wealthy honeymooning newlywed couple, he several decades older than her and very publicly ungentlemanly. In reality they are father and daughter, and everything is calculated to engender sympathy for when he disappears the next morning, having allegedly taken all of her savings and leaving her penniless, spurring the other guests to collect money for her, all a very routine con. What isn’t routine is the gentlemanly to a fault Terence Winch, in town working for the British Treasury Department to make sure the English guests aren’t spending more money than they’re allowed, who is taken with Claire from the moment he first sees her, and springs to offer comfort when her “husband” vanishes. Already yearning for a more honest and stable life, Claire is conflicted between what Terence offers her and the reality of her world. She runs, but he follows her to the next hotel and discovers the next scam.
There’s a lot of irony to be had in a story where characters are posing as someone other than who they are, but it’s played dramatically at least as well as it’s played comedically. For about half of the story, it’s just Claire and Terence, and while there is still comedy in that section, it’s not nearly as light as when her father returns to the picture and any doubt that he’s anything but a loveable scoundrel is dispelled. Victor (and his old friend/partner in crime Teddy, whom we meet getting caught trying to pick Victor’s pocket) bring a lot more mirth back to what had become a somewhat angsty story of starcrossed lovers with a comedic edge.
Much of the joy of the movie comes from character actors being characters. In the second half of the story, not only do we get Victor and Teddy, but we also meet a lousy conman who tries to con them, eccentric millionaire “Cash” Dutton, and an exasperated Italian taxi driver played by Sebastian Cabot very much not doing the kind of thing he’s remembered for. The first half relies more on wit for the laughs, but also has a flustered hotel manager picking up signals that aren’t there.
Terence is uncomfortably identifiable. He’s a man who likes his routine and his un-exciting job, doesn’t have many friends (thanks to his job policing people’s spending habits making him a pariah), and perhaps overly… polite? I’m not sure exactly what to call it when he assumes multiple times that Claire would rather be alone than share his company even though it’s not the case and after the first time he ought to know she does want him around. All of this makes the Secret Test of Character at the end even more uncomfortable than the trope usually is, since Terence seems so comfortable playing the role he tests Claire with he seems like not Terence putting on a show, but an entirely different character also played by Terence Morgan.
Upon reflection, the tone isn’t well balanced, but it’s enjoyable all the way through. The dramatic shift contributes to the feeling of a play, as if it were meant to be staged in two acts, but it’s original to the screen. The love story is sweet and the con men are fun, but they don’t really blend as well as they should.