Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) is a very influential man who works in the theatre world, and his favourite play is Ben Jonson's Volpone which he likes to watch private stagings of for an audience of one: himself. Just as tonight, when he tells the baffled cast that they can cease their performance part of the way through as he knows how it ends, and off he goes into the Venetian night to commence putting his grandest show ever in motion. First he needs an accomplice, and after placing an advertisement in the newspaper thinks he has the right man, McFly (Cliff Robertson), who is bemused to learn he is not being hired for a theatrical show, but something that will play out in Fox's townhouse...
After the financial disaster of Cleopatra, writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz needed something more certain of making money, so designed this setbound comedy with a mystery flavour and an all-star cast. Filmed fairly cheaply in Rome, at the famed Cinecitta' studios, it was one of a run of such things, often Agatha Christie adaptations, which appeared in this decade and the next to lure in unsuspecting audiences hoping to see celebrities in an ingenious plot, the sort of thing that was sent up mercilessly in Murder By Death about ten years after this, and not coincidentally also featuring Maggie Smith in a key role. But as this was supposed to be funny as well, could you observe it had beaten Neil Simon to the punch?
Not really, because while that seventies movie was an out and out spoof, The Honey Pot was serious about its plot, it just had the characters exchanging barbed lines to provide the laughs. Or it would have done if they had been funny, for the blockbuster that wasn't debacle of some years before had apparently taken its toll on Mankiewicz and he had alas developed a tin ear for would-be classy dialogue. Everything the characters said here sounded overwritten and straining for a sophistication that was beyond its grasp, with details presumably intended to be delightfully irreverent, such as Fox's athletic ballet dancing (an obvious double was used) coming across as simply bizarre.
Our anti-hero's scheme is to bring together three of his exes, all of whom are rich but Lone Star (Susan Hayward) is the richest of the lot, and pretend that he is dying so he can gauge their reactions and find out what they really thought of him, along with the satisfaction of messing with their heads in the process. The other two were movie star Merle McGill (Edie Adams, an underused talent in film) and a Princess (Capucine, looking tired), and you had to wonder why any of this trio agreed to show up at all given they display little affection for the man, unless they were after the contents of his will which as is pointed out doesn't make much sense either when they were all comfortably well off. It is about this time that the twist was introduced, based as we begin to realise on that play Fox likes so much.
It was typical of this film's intellectual aspirations that it would base its premise on that of a four-hundred-year old play, with Volpone being what Jonson would be best known for aside from being a pal of William Shakespeare or being buried in his grave standing up. Those facts were more interesting than what was conjured up here at some length, and even that was cut down from an even more elephantine running time, which to dilute the material further was based on a different play based on a book based on the Jonson work. No wonder Fox is obsessed with time and clocks, a theme that this did very little with other than provide a hook for the production design, otherwise this had a drab, cluttered appearance that should have really been dressing up all those acres of dialogue with a more interesting setting. Only Maggie Smith in a supporting role seemed to have a handle on what to do to bring some life to this, but in its final stages it just grew too arch for its own good. Luckily Mankiewicz didn't end his career with this, he still had Sleuth up his sleeve, a far better play to screen adaptation than The Honey Pot proved to be. Music by John Addison.