In director Ronald Neame’s caper flick, Gambit (1966; 109 mins.), a British cat burglar, Harry Dean (Michael Caine), teams with a Eurasian dancer, Nicole (Shirley MacLaine), to steal a head statue from a Middle Eastern magnate, Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). What starts as a great inversion of the heist film loses juice by the end, but it’s still a lark.
As Harry explains to another partner in crime, Emile (John Abbott), the entire scheme will be seamless—and we see this perfect scenario played out in the first reel. (In her review, Pauline Kael claims Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours inspired this device.) But reality’s more complicated. Nicole’s shrill, a wild card. Shahbandar’s no gullible mark, and Harry himself isn’t as clever as he thinks. And, to its credit, the movie keeps us guessing whether the heroes can snag the statue. To say more would spoil the fun.
As a bickering duo, MacLaine and Caine mix well, but I didn’t buy the nascent romance between them. Harry’s too stiff, too annoyed with Nicole, and yet she finds him charming (never mind that Caine is in his dashing, Alfie-era prime). The attraction should be more tentative, right to the end. Still, they’re a solid reason to see the film.
Neame (who directed The Poseidon Adventure) gives the movie a poppy sheen. His use of Technoscope and Technicolor is marvelous, and the Maurice Jarre score has the same light, cocktail-lounge zing of the Henry Mancini soundtracks from the same era.
Even as delightful fluff, though, Gambit evades greatness. I wanted more conflict between Harry and Nicole, more sting to their banter. Like other films inspired by Jules Dassin’s Topkaki (1964), this one pales in comparison. It runs out of gas before the climax; but when the actual robbery happens, oh boy. The soundtrack goes silent. Hooked, we lean closer to the screen. Overall, the movie needed more style and bite (more of an edge) to justify its running time. For most viewers today, as used to the glut of comedic capers as we are, Gambit will be tame (even politically incorrect—Lom’s browned up to pass as Middle Eastern), a prehistoric model of the twisty, frothy, and slick ‘rob jobs’ that came out in the decades since its release.
None of these things, though, wiped the smile from my face.
Extras on the gorgeous Kino Lorber Blu-ray include an audio commentary by Neame and one by a film historian. The disc also sports the movie’s trailer and a bevy of trailers for other recent and/or related Kino titles.