A Movie A Day: HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966) You don’t think I’d steal something that didn’t belong to me, do you?
Published at: Dec. 10, 2008, 2:27 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
We follow the great Eli Wallach from yesterday’s ‘70s horror flick THE SENTINAL to today’s ‘60s comedy HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn.
HOW TO STEAL A MILLION is a comedic romantic heist flick and is somehow very British without being stuffy. I know I probably just pissed off some UK readers, but you should know what I’m talking about. Sometimes British comedy, especially from the ’60s and earlier (pre-Monty Python), can be cold and dry. I’d describe the comedy in this movie as being warm and dry.
The driving force of the film is the chemistry between Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn and that’s where the warmth comes from. They are absolutely adorable together.
Hepburn plays the daughter of a brilliant art forger. Papa Bonnet’s specialty is paintings, but he comes from a long line of forgers. His father’s talent was in recreating sculptures and so on.
Papa Bonnet is played by one of my all time favorite movie faces, Hugh Griffith. We’ve touched upon two of his appearances in the AMAD list before, first as King Louis in START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME and then as the most awesomely named character ever (The Pigman) in the bizarre Grimm’s Fairy Tale-ish thriller WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO?
In both those roles he stood out, but had almost zero screentime, so you can imagine my delight when Papa Bonnet was a major player in this movie… so much so that I’d rank him as the 3rd lead.
Papa Bonnet sells one of his fakes at auction for over half a million dollars, which opens the movie. He’s currently working on Van Gogh’s Starry Night and catches an earful as he paints from Hepburn who heard about the auction. She’s on the straight and narrow, disapproving of her father’s profession. She sees how much joy it brings him and he’s not a bad man… very kooky and excitable, almost childlike, so she always lets him continue on.
Now, I mentioned this movie being very British, which is kind of funny because it’s an American production, directed by a German-born director (William Wyler), starring an almost completely British cast… set in France. All these people, minus Wallach, who is an American businessman, are playing French, but their marvelous British accents aren’t altered one bit.
And they are marvelous. Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn’s accents are glorious. I’m not sure if the English language has ever sounded more classically beautiful than they do coming out of Hepburn and O’Toole’s mouthes, especially in this era.
Speaking of O’Toole, he factors into the story when Hepburn catches him breaking into her home. She doesn’t see him chipping off a piece of paint from Papa Bonnet’s Starry Night, just sees him taking the painting off the wall, so she thinks he’s an art thief. He doesn’t correct this mistake and ends up using his charm to completely turn the situation around back on Hepburn.
At the end of their initial meeting you can see he has hooked her. I guess her being so straight and narrow of a character, so goodie two shoes, makes it acceptable that she’d fall for a thief (even if he isn’t one). Opposites attract and all that.
It’s not just her, though. O’Toole examines the paint chip and sees it is indeed a fake, but when he goes back to the man who employed him in the first place he lies and says it’s real. She has him, too, and how could he resist? I mean, it’s 1966 Audrey Hepburn. She’d be enough to make Kurt leave Goldie and turn Rock Hudson straight.
When the local museum asks to display Papa Bonnet’s Venus statue, he gladly allows them to. He’d never sell this piece… for one, it was made by his late father who modeled it after his late mother, but more pressing… there are many tests in place that can prove authenticity on sculptures. He’s been offered a million for it, but if he sells it it will be tested and revealed as a fake.
So, he can be prideful of this piece, have it displayed, have the limelight, which is worth more than a million to him anyway. So, away to the museum this piece goes. But then the museum’s insurance adjuster visits him. The museum needs to insure the sculpture and that requires an evaluation which will reveal its true nature, thus revealing Papa Bonnet’s whole collection to be fake.
Hepburn knows where O’Toole is staying and conspires to steal the statue from the highly secure museum, but won’t tell him why. Little does she know he already has a good idea of her motives.
Actually, when he reveals he knows and she asks him why he agreed to help her… it’s one of the better romantic moments I’ve ever seen. It’s very simple, but perfect.
The heist itself is awesome. It’s so low-tech that I had to laugh. Basically they use magnets, strings, a boomerang and costumes. I love, love, love pre-modern security heist movies… It’s less about gadgets and more about smarts and charm.
Wyler and screenwriter Harry Kurnitz smartly layer most of the romance aspect into the heist itself. By doing that they really allow the romance to reveal itself naturally, influenced by the changing events around them and heightened by the constant danger of discovery.
You might notice the score in this movie. It’s a very jazzy, sometimes mismatched to the scenes in front of you, but always big, giving an audio identity to the film. There’s a reason why you’d take notice of the score while watching. It’s an early work by John (Then “Johnny”) Williams.
I wish that a movie called GAMBIT was available on DVD because that is the perfect double feature with this movie. It’s also a romantic comedy/heist flick about stealing a statue from a museum, starring Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine and Herbert Lom. And it came out in the same year! Perfect double feature, I’m tellin’ ya’.
Final Thoughts: I found this film to be incredibly entertaining, filled with some of the best character actors of the era. Wallach filmed this movie back to back with THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What a great and bizarre one-two punch. The film delivers laughs, the film delivers an imaginative heist and, most importantly, the film delivers a terrifically entertaining time at the movies. Man, how come this film isn’t getting re-released? There’s my quote whore’s poster quote and no poster to put it on!
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Wednesday, December 10th: WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965)
Thursday, December 11th: BEING THERE (1979)
Friday, December 12th: THE PARTY (1968)
Saturday, December 13th: CASINO ROYALE (1967)
Sunday, December 14th: THE STRANGER (1946)
Monday, December 15th: BROTHER ORCHID (1940)
Tuesday, December 16th: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)
Peter Sellers-A-Thon begins tomorrow! Rejoice! It all starts with WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? We will follow Peter O’Toole over to that one! See you folks then!