Carlton-Browne of the Foreign Office doesn't boast a particularly strong script. The comedy is broad, and a lot of the concepts and action seem dated. But it remains as timely a satire on bureaucracy as the day it was made.
The little island of Gardellia, a former British colony, is suddenly the centre of international attention. The Russians, it's believed, have found something there of great value. Whatever it is, they can't be allowed to have it. And from his sleepy corner of the Foreign Office, prize ambassadorial chump Cadogan deVere Carlton-Browne (Terry-Thomas) is despatched to sort out the situation.
He finds the island on the brink of civil war. On the one corner is the new and very young Oxford-educated King, played by Ian Bannen. His right-hand man is the corrupt (well, he hopes to become thoroughly corrupt) Prime Minister Amphibulos, played by Peter Sellers.
On the other side of the island is the Princess Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi) and her scheming uncle, Grand Duke Alexis (John Le Mesurier).
Of course the British win out in the end, despite all the bumbling Carlton-Browne can manage. The end isn't the point. The strength of the film is the wonderful cast; even the most minor role, of a housewife being interviewed for a newsreel, is cast with quality, with a characteristic cameo role from the ineffable Irene Handl.
While the comedy is broad and a bit creaking at times, the wit with which its creators mock both bureaucracy and politicians is still something to relish. It is, in many ways, a prototype Yes Minister.
But overall, the performances are the thing. This is surely Terry-Thomas's best film role, as he plays the gormless upper-class twit to perfection rather than his usual stereotyped cad. John Le Mesurier is splendid as the scheming Grand Duke; Thorley Walters as Carleton-Browne's Military Advisor Colonel Bellingham is as hapless a soldier as Carleton-Browne is an Ambassador.
The only person whose talent seems somewhat wasted is Peter Sellers as the Prime Minister. There just isn't enough in the role for him to exploit his strange genius to the full. Overall though, this is a delight, albeit a slightly dated one.
There aren't that many widescreen black and white movies on DVD, but this has been given great transfer treatment.
Although there are occasional signs showing that this isn't a pristine print, the few signs of wear are very minor and not at all intrusive. The anamorphic transfer has given us great clarity and definition; the blacks are lush and the contrasts nicely detailed.