‘The Million Pound Note’: A Wager About Wealth and Worth

A rollicking story by Mark Twain that shows what we really value.
‘The Million Pound Note’: A Wager About Wealth and Worth
Two elderly, eccentric millionaires—the Montpelier brothers, Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and Oliver (Ronald Squire)—in “The Million Pound Note.” (General Film Distributors)
11/29/2023
Updated:
12/8/2023
0:00

NR | 1 h 30 min | Drama, Comedy | 1954

Director Ronald Neame’s film “The Million Pound Note” (1954) draws on the same storyline and characters as previous British and American adaptations of a rollicking Mark Twain short story.

Lost in a storm, drifting Henry Adams (Gregory Peck) is picked up by a brig and, working as an unpaid hand, earns passage to a distant shore. Once in England, with not a cent (or penny) to his name, he rushes to the American consulate in London. But they can’t front him even interim funds without collateral. So he walks the streets trying to find food, drink, and shelter until he can work and earn enough to pay his way back to America.

Henry Adams (Gregory Peck), in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)
Henry Adams (Gregory Peck), in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)

Unknown to Adams, two elderly, eccentric millionaires—the Montpelier brothers, Oliver (Ronald Squire) and Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White)—have been looking for someone just like him: an honest, intelligent, impoverished stranger in London. After persuading the Bank of England to customize a million-pound note for them, which proxies as currency, they’ve placed a bet between them. To get through a month’s use of goods and services, will the note’s bearer, Adams, be able to return the note intact? Will the flourishing of the note suffice to open doors of credit that would otherwise slam in his face?

The brothers summon a flummoxed Adams, smilingly hand him the note with little but a cryptic letter by way of explanation, and mysteriously disappear. First, Adams uses the note in ignorance. Without paying a dime, he’s able to secure a lavish meal at an upmarket restaurant that was about to shun him for his scruffy looks. Later, as he uses the note with knowledge that it’s merely a harmless wager, he figures that he might as well leverage it while still penniless. He does. With amusingly mixed results.

The Montpelier brothers Oliver (Ronald Squire, L) and Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White) have a plan, in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)
The Montpelier brothers Oliver (Ronald Squire, L) and Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White) have a plan, in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)
Just when he finds love in the arms of pretty philanthropist Portia Lansdowne (Jane Griffiths), his precious note goes missing. Now, he must find out if it’s better being embraced for his perceived or real worth?

A Lighthearted Gamble

The role of Adams seems written more for the comedic talents of the likes of James Stewart or Cary Grant. Still, Peck manages to shed enough of his famed gravitas to capture Adams’s laughable dilemma. Sure, the high-society sycophancy that Adams encounters is over the top, but it’s meant to be a lighthearted self-caricature.

Twain is saying that society’s reading of a man’s worth is, usually, mistaken because many people are too easily swayed by a fancy accent or fanciful attire. Comically, Twain pits a materialistic, transactional view of trust founded on currency against a humane view based on decency.

Twain likens a gold mine to a currency note: a promise or premise of wealth rather than wealth itself that gold is meant to symbolize—except that gold itself is just a symbol of what it can buy, nothing more, nothing less. Dozens of investors invest in a gold mine, cheekily called “Good Hope,” on the strength of Adams’s word. Fickle as ever, they praise him as the mine’s stock price spirals, then curse him as it plummets.

Philanthropist Portia Lansdowne (Jane Griffiths) and Henry Adams (Gregory Peck), in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)
Philanthropist Portia Lansdowne (Jane Griffiths) and Henry Adams (Gregory Peck), in "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)

The fun and games in Neame’s scene choreography lie in the fact that every seller of goods and services sees Adams as a millionaire whose eccentricity they can exploit for repeat purchases. As the old proverb goes, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” They figure that with a bit of flattery and adulation, he’ll part with more money than he should. First, the joke’s on them. Adams parts with none. Then, when he realizes that he has no money to part with in the first place, he’s more at home with himself and the world.

Watch for a charming three-minute scene when Adams, chasing his note in a breeze, bumps into a man on the street distributing pamphlets that are about the same size and shape as his note. Suddenly, dozens of notes flutter above the sidewalk as Adams clutches at one (and all) of those notes at the same time, not knowing the true note from the false.

Theatrical poster for "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)
Theatrical poster for "The Million Pound Note." (General Film Distributors)

An elite menswear store that Adams steps into wears its sales slogan above its doorway: “Clothes maketh the man.” Naturally, his shoddy appearance draws scorn from store clerks, and his note draws fawning attention. Later, he discovers that a suit may signify finesse, but it’s the person wearing it who delivers or reneges on its promise of class.

You can watch “The Million Pound Note” on the Roku Channel, Tubi TV, and YouTube.
The Million Pound NoteDirector: Ronald Neame Starring: Gregory Peck, Jane Griffiths Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes Release Date: June 18, 1954 Rated: 3 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz