You get released from Wormwood Scrubs after a long stretch at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. You’re middle-aged and it’s the late 60s. What do you do now? Well, if you’re Marcus Pendleton (Ustinov), you learn new skills, specifically computers, and launch yourself into the job market, rising quickly in a big American conglomerate.
Of course, this is a crime caper and no-one in 1968 would hire an ex-con to run their IT Department, so Ustinov assumes the guise of Caesar Smith, a genuine computer expert with an impressive CV. Much to the dismay of the sublimely-named Willard Gnatpole (Newhart), Caesar is an instant success, reaching Senior Executive level through a combination of bluffing and studying hard each night.
But we know the real reason for Caesar’s new job: he plans to embezzle millions from his company by subverting the most secure computer in the world with the help of a lot of international travel as well as the cleaning lady’s mop and bucket. He arouses the suspicions of Willard, who fancies himself as the bright young thing of the company and is desperate to supplant Caesar’s position as right-hand man to corporate vice-president Klemper (Malden).
Soon, things are looking up for Caesar, with plenty of money coming in and a new wife in the shape of his former PA and scatter-brained next-door neighbour, Patty (Smith). But how long can he keep up the complicated charade that protects his new life?
This delightful comedy comes from the pen of Ustinov himself, with writing partner Ira Wallach, and is a joy from start to finish. For this is a movie in which there’s both a convincing plot and winning characters, neither of which feel forced. Resisting the temptation to write himself a showy part, Ustinov makes Pendleton/Smith the straight man, with all the best lines going to Maggie Smith. And Smith certainly does shine as a comedienne, instantly endearing as the uncoordinated, seemingly dim Patty, who is unable to keep a job and dreams of becoming a flautist. Newhart also impresses as the slimy exec trying to climb the greasy pole and eliminate the competition.
And, unlike many crime capers, there’s an ending that’s both plausable and genuinely surprising. And it gets there with the minimum of fuss, never dragging, except for an inexplicable cameo featuring Cesar Romero as a customs officer offended at Malden and Newhart’s taste in beverages.