School for Scoundrels (d. Robert Hamer, 1959) was adapted from a popular series of books by Stephen Potter - Gamesmanship (1947),Lifemanship (1950), Oneupmanship (1952) and Supermanship (1958) - in which he explained "how to win without actually cheating" by taking psychological advantage of your opponent at every possible opportunity.
As the books were essentially non-narrative, the film presents an original scenario whereby Alastair Sim plays a character named Stephen Potter, whose College of Lifemanship is attended by men such as the hapless Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), plagued by cads such as Raymond Delaunay (Terry-Thomas) and slimy car salesmen Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester (Dennis Price and Peter Jones).
Although credited to Patricia Moyes and producer Hal Chester, the screenplay was co-written by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, an American-born screenwriter who had been exiled to Britain after being blacklisted by the McCarthy hearings. Credited director Robert Hamerwould suffer a blacklist of a different kind - a recovering alcoholic, he fell off the wagon during production, was sacked on the spot (Chester and the uncredited Cyril Frankel finished the film), and would never work in the industry again.
Truth to tell, there's little sign of the elegance and wit that characterised earlier Hamer films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Spider and the Fly (both 1949) - the virtues of School For Scoundrels rest almost entirely in the script and performances. Thankfully, the latter are up to scratch - Terry-Thomas in particular is outstanding as a classic British bounder, a somewhat under-used Sim creates another memorably eccentric authority figure, and the supporting cast includes such comedy stalwarts as John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques (who were married at the time) and Irene Handl.
But Ian Carmichael gets the lion's share of screen time, starting off as a close relative of the innocents abroad that he played in Lucky Jim (d. John Boulting, 1957) and I'm All Right Jack (d. Boulting, 1959) - though here he eventually gets to turn the tables on each of his tormentors. That said, his essential niceness gets the better of him when he finds he can't go through with his planned seduction of April (Janette Scott) - and in turn teaches Potter (and us) a valuable lesson: psychology is all very well if you're merely playing games, but sincerity is far better if you genuinely mean it.
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 27, No.316, May 1960, page 66
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS (1959)
Henry Palfrey, new pupil at the College of Lifemanship at Yeovil, recounts his depressing history to the principal, Mr. Potter. The proprietor of a small family business, he is bullied in his office by his chief clerk; he is humiliated by head waiters; he has been tricked by two second-hand car salesmen into buying a decrepit and costly wreck of a car; he has lost his girl, April Smith, to the insufferable Raymond Delauney; and he has allowed Delauney to beat him at tennis. A short course in Lifemanship reverses the situation. Under Potter's paternal supervision, Palfrey returns to wreck the nerves of the chief clerk; to make the car dealers victims of an even more sensational swindle (he exchanges the wreck for a new sports car and £100); to practice gamesmanship on a harassed Delauney and to win back April Smith. His reversion to sincerity in proposing to April comes as something of a shock to Potter, who rapidly recovers to see here the inauguration of a new ploy. The professor of Lifemanship also acquires a new pupil, Delauney.
The joke of Lifemanship, so elaborately worked up by Stephen Potter in his series of books, already looks a little fatigued, like the game of U and non-U. School for Scoundrels might have used it as a foundation for some edged social comedy; and occasionally it seems that this may be just around the corner. But the corner is never turned and the film keeps to a simpler formula: the before and after manner of the advertisements, with the one-down man rather monotonously demonstrating how Potterism has helped him to become one-up. In view of the limitations of the script, which makes nothing of the underlying savageries of the Lifemanship game of humiliation and inspired bad manners, Robert Hamer has directed with intelligent restraint. If the comedy lacks sharpness, he has not allowed it to become further blunted by bogus joviality. The two episodes with the car salesmen, played with gloating greed by Dennis Price and Peter Jones, are the funniest; and there moments at the Lifemanship College which suggest that these short scenes could have stood expansion. Ian Carmichael allows himself to appear a trifle sulky as the victim and boorish as the victor. Alastair Sim, playing a canny, solitary game of croquet or turning to the audience at the end with a horror-stricken "stop the music", has chosen to emphasise the gentler aspects of Lifemanship.
The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.