Saturday, May 8, 2010
Down To The Very Last Detail
The deadly serious vigilante film HARRY BROWN, recently released in the States, is a treat for any Michael Caine fan and getting to see it was maybe the reason I pulled out one of his lesser known films, actually the first one he made over here after achieving stardom in England with the likes of ALFIE and THE IPCRESS FILE. The 1966 heist movie GAMBIT from Universal was directed by Ronald Neame and also starred Shirley MacLaine, the top-billed star who according to various sources was the one who picked the lesser known Caine as her co-star. There is something in GAMBIT about the futility of making plans and having expectations thwarted by people we can never fully know, particularly women, but more than anything it really is simply a light-hearted caper film, a piece of fluff, and one that probably deserves to be better known than it is. It’s the sort of film that if they ever do attempt to make today it always comes off as dumber than it needs to be, but GAMBIT remains smoothly elegant and at times very funny with a nice gimmick to the story as well.
I could discuss the plot at length, but that might be problematic. Suffice it to say that Michael Caine plays Harry Dean (it seems like some of the best Caine characters are either named Harry, Elliott or some iteration of the name Alfred) a criminal in Hong Kong who enlists a Eurasian beauty named Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine) to provide valuable assistance with what he believes is an “absolutely foolproof” plan. His scheme involves the theft of a priceless antiquity owned by reclusive billionaire Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) “the richest man in the world” who they travel to in the fictional kingdom of Dammuz. There are, of course, unforeseen complications but revealing more than this would be difficult not simply because of the expected twists but, as the film’s poster puts in, “GO AHEAD TELL THE END (IT’S TOO HILARIOUS TO KEEP SECRET!) BUT PLEASE DON’T TELL THE BEGINNING!”. Sure enough, shortly before the half-hour mark the film does in fact spring a big surprise on the viewer that calls into doubt the very nature of this plan that Dean believes can’t possibly fail. At least, it was a surprise for me when I first saw it. The very nature of the twist is something that you may have seen elsewhere, maybe on some long forgotten sitcom but it remains—well, I’d better not say anything more.
GAMBIT is like a sparkling glass of champagne, a sixties heist film with all the wit and sparkling interplay of something out of the thirties. It’s very clearly trying to capitalize on the success of a similar picture like TOPKAPI (I doubt cross-cutting from the quiet methodical heist in progress to applause at a public event happening at the same moment was new at the time) and some of the influences are readily apparent. But compared with other international heist films of this era that have good actors, smooth music, exotic locations and a cool poster but not much beyond that, GAMBIT holds together on the strength of how well the three leads bounce off each other and the expert rhythm that builds as it goes along. At a certain point things have been set up so well that when the laughs begin after a prolonged slow burn—I shouldn’t say when—they’ve been genuinely earned and we didn’t even see it coming. The continually inventive screenplay by Alvin Sargent (best known in recent years for his work on the SPIDER-MAN sequels) and Jack Davies from a story by Sidney Carroll ticks along like a Swiss watch--as well as featuring dialogue like, “Why is it that people who follow people always end up fingering trinkets?”--with the laughs and suspense correctly balanced out by director Ronald Neame (who helmed THE POSDIDON ADVENTURE several years later) making it clear how aware he is aware that the plot, dialogue and actors are what really matter, not so much the exotic background—aside from some second unit shots, a few airport scenes and one sequence set on a yacht probably filmed up near Santa Barbara, the whole thing was probably shot in glorious Techniscope entirely at Universal City. The music by Maurice Jarre is sprightly all the way through and the overall production has an appropriately exotic feel which received three Oscar nominations for Art Direction, Costumes and Sound.
It’s all dependant on a gimmick, yes, but a very good one, and while GAMBIT is pretty frothy stuff in the end—if a little more time had been spent on the MacLaine-Caine romance that might have added some depth, but no big deal—it’s great frothy stuff, something that Hollywood clearly either has no idea how to do anymore or they just know how to do it in the loudest, stupidest way imaginable. It also goes by in a flash, running 109 minutes and barely seeming half that length. After seeing this hugely enjoyable movie again for the first time in several years it did a very difficult thing—it put me in a better mood than before. That right there has to say something. Light as a feather, GAMBIT is extremely minor in the end but it easily ranks as one of the most unappreciated of sixties heist films if not one of the very best and that's coming from somebody who loves heist movies. And, yes, in spite of what the poster says I really shouldn’t give away the ending.
Playing things very smooth all the way through, Michael Caine comes off as totally ready for stardom at this point and nails his part completely with perfect comic timing throughout. He’s also very funny when exasperatingly screaming something at someone that includes the word “bloody”. The casting of Shirley MacLaine as part-Asian here may slightly date things which for all I know could be why the film isn’t better known these days (well, she’s described as having “a French-Canadian mother and Eurasian father” which is a nice try but doesn’t quite do the job) but, hey, so what. This may not be her best role—all right, fine, I could probably name half a dozen that are better—but it may very well be the actress at her cutest, her spunkiest, her most delectable. I’m going to be in Santa Fe in a few weeks where she lives and am suddenly finding myself wishing that I could run into her there and tell her how amazing she is in this film. Playing an adversary who you’re never quite sure what to expect from, Herbert Lom has one of his very best roles, playing someone who is smart enough to know something’s going on immediately but still curious enough to find out what. His intelligence and likeable nature adds immeasurably to the entire film and seeing this would be a treat for anyone who knows him mainly as Commissioner Dreyfus. The three leads provide most of the focus but Roger C. Carmel, better known as Harry Mudd on STAR TREK, turns up as well as character actor John Abbott who I guess I should admit I recognized as one of the Organians in the TREK episode “Errand of Mercy”. Vic Tayback also briefly appears---hey, he was on a STAR TREK, too!
There’s a remake that’s been floating around out there in development that the Coen Brothers have apparently written and I could imagine the nature of the structure appealing to them. Not that I’m ever all that excited about remakes but the idea has potential if it takes advantage of all the comic possibilities. Some might remember that this film’s two stars were reunited several years ago playing opposite each other with supporting roles in BEWITCHED—no real surprise, that film managed to waste the potential of what it had with them. GAMBIT definitely doesn’t waste any of its potential and remains entertaining all the way through. The film was released on VHS way back when but remains MIA on DVD so keep an eye on those Turner Classics listings—the Scope transfer they show looks terrific. If light entertainment could still be done this well than that would probably be better for all of us but since that doesn’t seem to be the case I’ll just have to keep the version I taped off TCM around for when it’s needed to help put me in a better mood. And for all I know that could be very soon so it’s just one more reason for me to hang onto my VCR.