The wickedly witty 1960 British comedy film School for Scoundrels (subtitled How to Win Without Actually Cheating) is, interestingly enough, based on a series of non-fiction self-help books.
Stephen Potter had enjoyed great success with these books, beginning in 1947 with Gamesmanship and continuing with One-Upmanship, Lifemanship and Supermanship. The idea behind them was to point out how to gain an unfair advantage in almost any situation without having to do anything that was technically illegal or against the rules. Although the intention behind the books was humorous they contained some extraordinarily penetrating insights into the ways in which some people almost invariably win while others almost invariably lose. Peter Ustinov had the idea of turning the ideas in the books into a comedy film and produced the first version of the screenplay although he does not receive a screen credit.
Henry endures a string of humiliations until finally he determines to take drastic action. He enrolls in the College of Lifemanship run by a certain Stephen Potter (played by Alistair Sim). At the college he learns to apply the kinds of techniques that Delaunay uses instinctively but he learns to employ them in a scientific and systematic way. While Delaunay is a mere amateur Henry becomes a skilled professional in the art of lifemanship, and amateurs are no match for professionals. Henry is soon turning the tables on Delaunay, and on everyone else who has humiliated him.
School for Scoundrels has many things going for it, not the least of these being the presence of three of the greatest of all British comic actors in the three central roles. Ian Carmichael was always good at playing nice guys who are rather put-upon but he also had the ability to give his performances a bit of an edge when needed and he is thus equally adept at playing the hapless loser Henry of the first half of the movie and the smooth winner who graduates with a degree in lifemanship. Terry-Thomas is as usual a superb cad. Alistair Sim has great fun as the cynical Potter. And all three are in superlative form, so good that it would be impossible to choose favourites. As a bonus we get equally delightful performances by Dennis Price and Peter Jones, formidable comic talents themselves, as two oily used car salesmen.
What made Potter’s books so immensely popular, and what makes the film so successful, is that the dastardly techniques of gamesmanship and lifemanship really do work. In fact Potter’s work has had considerable influence on psychologists. The books may have been intended humorously but they can be used as instruction manuals in how to become an unscrupulous winner. This is humour, but humour with a sometimes disturbing edge. It’s impossible not to rejoice as Henry Palfrey takes his revenge on those who have injured him while at the same time we can’t help feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable at the unalloyed joy he gets from doing unto others as they have done unto him. In fact even though Raymond Delaunay is a cad and a rotter we feel slightly sorry for him as he finds himself outgunned by Henry’s armoury of dirty tricks.
School for Scoundrels is splendid British comedy and a glorious opportunity to see some of Britain’s finest comic talents at the top of their game. Highly recommended.