When I was a kid, I pretty much only knew Peter Sellers from the Pink Panther films. As I grew in my film knowledge I discovered him in many other great films, including one of my all time favorites, “Dr. Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.” I love that I continue to run across Sellers films that I have never heard of. Such is the case today as we look at the 1960 British film “Two Way Stretch.”
Sellers plays Dodger Lane, a prisoner who, along with his cellmates Jelly (David Lodge) and Lennie (Bernard Cribbins, for you Doctor Who fans), has got it pretty good despite being behind bars. Dodger is sort of the leader of the yard and can basically get any sort of goods from the outside that he wants. Life is pretty easy for him. It also doesn’t hurt that the prison Governor (Maurice Denham) is quite progressive and prefers to have his prisoners work at gardening and building cabinets rather than slaving away in the quarry. Why, the chief guard, Jenkins (George Woodbridge), even stops by Dodger’s cell for tea every evening.
Dodger and his boys only have a few days left on their sentence, yet they are intrigued by a million dollar opportunity that comes their way. An old crime buddy, Soapy Stevens (Wilfred Hyde-White), pays Dodger a visit disguised as a priest. He lets them in on a potential score which involves stealing the diamonds of a rich prince visiting England. If the boys can break out of prison, do the job, and break back in by morning they will have the “perfect alibi” and no one will suspect them of committing the crime. With Jenkins in their back pocket, and Dodger so trusted by the Governor that he is even allowed to handle the keys from time to time, the boys figure the job is a cinch.
That is…until they learn that Jenkins is retiring. His replacement is the toughest guard in the British empire, Officer Crout (Lionel Jeffries). He immediately begins to make life difficult for the boys, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Still, they begin to wonder if they can pull of the job. However, with some outside help from Soapy, as well as Dodger’s girlfriend and Lennie’s mother, they set out to break out of jail and then break back in.
What a fun little discovery this movie was! The film is very funny, which is to be expected with Sellers in the lead. His laid back approach to his role is a joy to watch. However, he is also surrounded by a great cast who all do their fair share to add to the comedy. The real standout is Lionel Jeffries. The way he barks all his lines is just perfect. I also really enjoyed the characters of Dodger’s girlfriend Ethel (Liz Fraser) and Lennie’s Mother (Irene Handl). A scene where they both come for a visitation is especially funny.
Some American viewers may find the film a bit of a challenge. Make no mistake, it’s British through and through. Fast delivery of lines and a healthy dose of British slang are the order of the day. I admit, I had to stop and think about what the cast had said once or twice, but I liked the way it all gave the film a brisk pace.
I did have a few minor problems with the ease at which the actual heist is pulled off. We really don’t see any of the planning of the robbery and I think there were a few missed comedic opportunities by not having the gang experience more hiccups in the execution of the robbery itself. Honestly, though, it didn’t bother me all that much because the film is just so darn fun.
“Two Way Stretch” is a real find! Peter Sellers certainly has a large filmography, but why this film has not been given more attention is truly baffling.