The Million Pound Note | Sunday Observer
Retro reviews: Cinema of yesteryear

The Million Pound Note

29 November, 2020

What ‘currency’ does a ‘banknote’ have? The question itself might sound utterly senseless and absurd. However, it is this supposition that becomes the premise for a wager that one may say is something of ‘financial philosophy’ between the wealthy and eccentric Montpelier brothers in London that sets off the events that form the comedic and somewhat exciting ‘The Million Pound Note’. A work of British cinema from 1954 with Hollywood screen legend Gregory Peck in the lead role as the penniless American seaman Henry Adams, this film directed by Ronald Neame is based on the short story The Million Pound Bank Note by Mark Twain.

The story takes place in London in 1903. American seaman Henry Adams, played brilliantly by Gregory Peck, is stranded penniless in Britain and desperate to find work so that he may have some means of sustenance and be able to get back home.

He is spotted while walking on the streets of London by two wealthy, eccentric brothers, Oliver and Roderick Montpelier who invite him into their opulent home and unknown to him, get him involved in their intriguing wager.

The Montpellier brothers have persuaded the Bank of England to issue a one million pound banknote, which they present to Adams in an envelope, only telling him that it contains some money. The basis of the wager that the two brothers have is that Oliver believes that the mere existence of the note will enable the possessor to obtain whatever he needs, while Roderick insists that it would actually have to be spent for it to be of any use.

Eccentric millionaire

Weary and famished, Henry who leaves the Montpelier house with the envelope, steps into a small restaurant and treats himself to a large hearty meal, twice over! And when it comes to the point of settling the bill, he opens the envelope to find that the sum of money inside it is in fact a one million pound note issued by the Bank of England.

The waiter, the proprietor and his wife, who operate the restaurant, are stunned beyond belief and come to the conclusion that Henry is an eccentric millionaire. They fawn before him and tell him that as they cannot change the banknote and give him his balance for payment of meal and therefore, it is gladly ‘on the house’ as they feel privileged to have served such a distinguished wealthy man as he, and further, bid Henry to come to their humble establishment to dine whenever he wishes.

The situation overwhelms Henry. He rushes over to the house of the Montpelier brothers to return the banknote. However, Henry learns they have gone abroad for a month.

The letter enclosed along with the million pound banknote in the envelope says that if Henry can return to them in a month with the banknote, having not cashed it, they will provide him a job, since Henry was in need of one. Realising that he has no choice but to wait for a month until the Montpelier brothers return, Henry realises the opportunity of ‘getting by’ is now within his possibilities by the possession of the banknote, by getting things on credit on the mere presentation of the fortune he carries in the form of a single banknote.

What follows is a whirlwind of skyrocketing social mobility for Henry who soon becomes the toast of London town! The newspapers celebrate him as the American millionaire with a one million pound banknote.

He meets the US Ambassador in England who introduces him to exclusive social circles and English aristocracy. At a reception at Hampshire House, the home of the Duchess of Cromarty, Henry becomes friendly with Portia Lansdowne, the niece of the Duchess of Cromarty. They eventually find themselves falling in love. Soon Henry realises that being a wealthy and famous comes with a lot of burdens.

While charities appeal for donations, a supposed ‘old family friend’, Lloyd Hastings, who meets Henry at Hampshire House appeals to him to back a business venture.

Hastings tells Henry that he does not have to actually put up any money but through association build investor confidence in the London business community, allowing Hastings to raise the money to develop his gold mine venture through the London stock exchange.

Disappearance of banknote

What follows for Henry while being swept away in the tides of romance with Portia and getting enmeshed in the complexities of London’s investment strategies is a bumpy ride that sees his image and credit worthy reputation being tarnished as a result of rumours initiated by the rather vexed Duke of Frongal who was unceremoniously moved out of the plush suite that he had been occupying on credit at the luxurious London hotel when Henry arrives to take abode.

Henry is soon suspected by London society as bogus and investor confidence which was soaring in the gold mine venture begins to tumble rapidly. And to make matters worse when Henry is hounded by the press to show his million pound banknote and prove that he still in fact has a million pounds, he discovers to his shock that the banknote has disappeared and no longer in the wallet that it was safely placed in his closet.

The consequences prove disastrous for Henry as his creditors and disgruntled investors all rally up to demand answers and also payment for what they are owed!

The banknote, unknown to Henry, is actually under the carpet of his hotel suite’s main bed chamber where it was put there by a hotel maid on the instructions of the Duke of Frongal as something of a wicked joke to create trouble for Henry whom he dislikes as a Yankee upstart.

However, when the Duke sees the uproar that is taking place in the hotel with the numerous people gathered to demand Henry actually proves he is still wealthy or face their wrath, he decides his joke has gone too far and appears at Henry’s side with the one million pound banknote and admits to Henry that he had it hid as a trick which had unintentionally gone too far.

The ending shows that all ends well. Investor confidence is resorted in the gold mine venture and the stock prices rise once again. The Montpelier brothers find that their trust in Henry to return to them in a month was not misplaced.

And Portia, who proves to Henry that she did not love him for his money by coming to be at his side when his credibility as a millionaire was being questioned by affluent Londoners, finds that she is considered the greatest prize of all in Henry’s heart. A narrative with hilarity, bursts of excitement, pleasing scenery and depictions of up class ‘London living’, The Million Pound Note is a classic of cinema to applaud and appreciate.