Directed by William Wyler
Written by Harry Kurnitz (based on the story "Venus Rising" by George Bradshaw)
At the start of his final decade as a director, William Wyler had seen fit to downsize things a little—and, after doing Ben-Hur, who wouldn't?—but he still had five more films left in him, and, despite a career that stretched back before sound, Wyler proved for the most part to be capable of changing with the times. And so, with the pictures that immediately followed the biggest, greatest Bible epic of them all, he switched gears completely, and did his part to forward Hollywood's awkward transition from its Golden Age into whatever was coming next. Each were smaller films (each about 1/12th the size and cost of Ben-Hur, and at most 3/5 the length, not that Ben-Hur is a useful standard), and they veered toward the more daring, more adult kind of fare that the crumbling Production Code was beginning to allow. This interval had permitted Wyler to indulge in both flavors of what the term "a movie for adults" could now mean. The first he offered up in the form of 1961's The Children's Hour, a drama about lesbianism—a remake of one of Wyler's own films, apparently done almost exclusively just to correct the excision of lesbianism from his first adaptation of the play back in 1936, and perhaps also to provide Audrey Hepburn, the star he'd made back in 1953's Roman Holiday, a weightier acting role than her typical jailbait gamines. The second was 1965's The Collector, which is probably more like what one would expect—that is, a sleaze-adjacent post-Psycho effort about a sexual predator and his victim. In 1966, however, Wyler switched gears right back, directing a film that he could've made with virtually the exact same substance at practically any point in the whole history of Hollywood—ten, twenty, even thirty years earlier, and I don't say "forty" solely because I think it would probably still need to be a talkie to work.
That brings us to How to Steal a Million, and it's as consummate a star vehicle as Hollywood ever produced. It is not necessarily more than that, though Wyler's participation ensured it would be an inordinately handsome one, and it is absolutely nothing less, banking everything it has on the charisma and chemistry of its two leads, whom we find pulled together by their own immense attractiveness as well as a semi-frivolous comic scenario that starts out frothy and only gets frothier as it goes along. It thus exists exclusively for the purpose of entertaining an audience who prefers their criminality harmless, their comedy alternately broad and dry, and their eroticism veiled, because, after all, the veil is what makes it hot, but as thinly veiled as humanly possible. You would never guess that the Hollywood that produced this was in a state of panic and collapse, or that the culture surrounding it was in upheaval. And yet one is so grateful it came precisely when it did, at the end of an era! That's not because I have any desire to treat it as a fossil of a bygone age, or accord it some generational importance. It is not an important film, nor ever been subject to any special critical reevaluation, particularly as Wyler himself has faded into history as little more than the statistically-likeliest answer for any given Oscar trivia question. Instead, then, I'm grateful he made Steal a Million when he did simply because that allowed for the perfect confluence of all its creative elements, and as much as the Hollywood machine mass-produced all manner of things like it, Steal a Million is as uncommon as it gets. And that is thanks to its just-right ingredients, which even a few years earlier wouldn't have been ready, and a few years later would've spoiled.
Those ingredients, in something like their ascending order of importance, are Wyler, seemingly quite carefree about his legacy, and I suppose for that reason turning to effervescent comedy, never previously a genre too well-represented in his filmography, or at least not in a long while; next, an incredibly snappy screenplay from Harry Kurnitz that balances the plot stuff with the character and comedy moments almost entirely in favor of the latter, to the film's benefit; an agreeable score by John Williams, here credited, cutely, as "Johnny," like he was a baby (he was 34); a luxurious and cultured European setting, for that whiff of sophistication-by-proxy, making art director Alexandre Trauner's job look easy; Peter O'Toole, at the height of his appeal; Audrey Hepburn, in her third and final film for Wyler, and likewise at the height of hers; and, of course, Audrey Hepburn's now-customary clothier, Givenchy, still close enough to the height of their fashionability to offer Hepburn up as a vision of elegance. Now, I'm not really saying that Hepburn's clothes are more important than Hepburn's acting, but if I were, I wouldn't mean it as a bad thing: at this point, her image and her performances had become so intertwined that when Hepburn's character is required to don a disguise as a cleaning woman, Kurnitz's script can slot in the line "and it'll give Givenchy the night off", and have that be one of the best quips in the movie, in part because her "cleaning woman" outfit still comes with its suspiciously-fetching hat.
So: from a distance, Steal a Million could look like just one more 1960s caper film, though, in accordance with its general sense of elevated classiness, it concerns itself with nothing so vulgar as the theft of money, but of art—and even then, only for the noblest of reasons. It begins with the sale of a Cézanne in Paris, but not a Cézanne by Cézanne. It's a fake, wrought by a certain Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith), an art forger from a family of art forgers, whom we meet as he puts the final touches on another forged van Gogh (pronounced with gratifying accuracy), much to the dismay and exasperated disapproval of his unaccountably-straitlaced daughter, Nicole (Hepburn). If that weren't bad enough, Nicole gets a further shock when she learns that Charles has agreed to loan "Cellini's" statue of Venus from his collection for display. And on his hubris hangs our tale.
Assuming that the museum would never bother testing a statue that his own father sculpted decades ago, and which they'd even exhibited themselves already back at the turn of the century, Charles is soon proven wrong, having failed to account for the museum's insurers, who very much insist on testing this piece of woman-shaped rock that their clients have claimed is worth a million bucks. Fortunately, Nicole has just met a man that could help—a thief, one Simon Dermott (O'Toole), whom she caught trying to lift her dad's "van Gogh" out of their house in the middle of the night, and whom she shot in the arm because he was stealing it so handsomely that she got distracted (making this a comedy where the symbolic premature orgasm belongs to the female lead). Together, they hatch a plan to save Nicole's father by stealing the most heavily-guarded work of art in the most heavily-guarded museum in Paris, that, insofar as it borders both the Ministry of the Interior and the Élysée Palace, sits in the single most-heavily guarded neighborhood in France. Simon, unsurprisingly, is unenthusiastic about this.
What he is enthusiastic about, however, is working closely with Nicole, and of course it is hard to blame him for that. It's not at all infrequent for caper films to take their inspiration from To Catch a Thief, and treat their caper as a vehicle for romance—hell, Hepburn had just been in one already, Charade, which was so crazy-obvious in its influence that it just went ahead and had Cary Grant in it, too—and yet I'm not aware of any of Hitchcock's descendants that are this perfect at making their high-stakes caper and their whirlwind courtship the exact same thing. In fact, I'm not aware of the Hitchcock that does it: Steal a Million is every bit as urgent about making sure you feel that the act of theft, when done stylishly, is the single horniest thing in God's creation, but it's also vastly better at it structurally, while never being one whit less coquettishly overt about it. For example: in their heist's cleverest moment, Nicole and Simon find themselves locked inside a closet by an unwitting guard; but when Simon unflappably demonstrates that he's prepared for this contingency, it is very hard not to read Hepburn's breathless astonishment—"marvelous"—as anything much short of a literal orgasm. If it's missing Grace Kelly pantomiming getting wet to the thought of burglary before an array of Technicolor fireworks, well, I guess that's one for To Catch a Thief as a work of subjective cinema—Hitchcock was pretty good at that—yet in Steal a Million's favor, it 1)actually cares about its plot at least a little, and 2)said plot hinges on Peter O'Toole's desire to possess a nude statuette of Audrey Hepburn (nominally based on Nicole's grandmother), in order to exchange it for the real one. Whereas, in a fun subplot, Eli Wallach's art collector, recently engaged to Nicole in what amounts to a joke, is perfectly happy to trade his real Hepburn for the fake one, not unlike that guy you know who's really into anime. Kurnitz evidently liked writing screenplays that equated leading ladies with cytherean statuary—Ava Gardner was such a statue, in One Touch of Venus, twenty years earlier.
Hey, I see that! You do your critical gender analysis on your own time.
There is, I grudgingly admit, ample room for fair criticism. One of the most accessible grounds would be that it's not a heist movie that bowls you over with its heist mechanics. On this count, Steal a Million is more "good" than "great": Simon's plan isn't that intricate—which is perhaps why the film prides its metaphor for sexual discovery over its logic, when it has its mastermind explain the majority of his plan to his partner after they've already begun to execute it—and it also comes off with barely a hitch. (Indeed, that aforementioned "cleverest part" comes right at the beginning of the heist sequence, and while it is very clever, it's also the only time our heroes are presented with any serious obstacle to completing their job, despite the screenplay's repeated reminders of how difficult said job was supposed to be.)
Hence one never has too much of a sense of watching a carefully-arranged house of cards that could come tumbling down at any moment, such as one gets when watching, say, the best parts of Topkapi, The Italian Job, or Grand Slam. Nor are we likely to find it especially likely that, when our two leads here maneuver around each other with their respective lies and obfuscations, they could ever intend each other the slightest harm, as opposed to, say, the best parts of The Thomas Crown Affair. Somehow the tensest piece of filmmaking in the whole movie comes when they're casing the place, and Wyler moves from an illustrative tour of the museum's exhibits into a nearly dialogue-free sequence of Simon silently working out his scheme, driven by Williams anxiously hitting the same key on a piano in a piece that is uncharacteristic for the composer generally, and this film specifically. (Frankly, the other easiest element to criticize is Williams's score: it's interesting to see his nascent stylistic tics, and there's bits here where you can say, "give it more personality, and this will be great for Nazis," or "Spielberg will one day use this man to cement the love between a boy and his alien," but he has a distressing tendency to lean much too hard into the comic tone, with carnivalesque cues that I don't think are too useful for a film that's undeniably silly, but otherwise only rarely and strategically admits that it's silly.)
High-test thrills aren't the end-all be-all, though, and it's hard to say that one feels their absence: the best parts of those other movies might be better on their narrow genre merits than the best parts of Steal a Million, but Steal a Million keeps it simple because it has other goals in addition to impressing you with an elaborate scheme. It's an intimate heist movie—honestly, not a lot of heist movies could manage even this many complications with just two people—and it's always much more about how arousing it is to break taboos with someone you want to fuck than it is tricking Paris's rather dumb museum cops. In that sense, it's doing exactly what it needs to do, by having Simon topple his opponents with godlike ease, for this is exactly how Nicole perceives it, and how we should perceive it through her eyes—not for nothing does this heist movie introduce our masterful thief, having broken into her home in the middle of night, wearing a tuxedo for no reason that is ever provided onscreen.
The dominant mode, then, is pure escapist fantasy, and as a romance—or rather, a romantic comedy—it's a perfect object, with a script studded with a seemingly-never-ending supply of well-crafted double entrendres (and even more commonly, really, just single entendres, but good ones), delivered by a pair of actors who may have never shed more onscreen sparks with anybody else. For what I think might be the very first time, Hepburn is actually playing off somebody younger than she is,* not that this changes much on the face of it: though she's 37 here, she's still physically and technically capable of playing the intrigued ingenue, and very much does. But I have to assume it doesn't hurt that O'Toole was 34, and isn't as visibly discomfited to act out an attraction to his co-star as some of her others were even when she was in her 30s; and it leaves them with no distractions from Wyler's determination to spend as many takes as necessary to get them to put the funniest possible spins upon lines that were already funny on the page (e.g., after Simon has picked out her disguise: "There's the bathroom, take off your clothes"/"Are we planning the same sort of crime?"). If I had to pick a first among equals, I'd be hard-pressed, so I won't; I will say only that Hepburn curves slightly more toward a conception of this romantic comedy as a romance first, and there's a shot that captures an expression of dawning joy on her face that I damn near swooned at.
All along, that screenplay expertly arranges each one's pursuit-and-retreat with dancelike precision, and cinematographer Charles Lang, guided by Wyler's unique comfort with the ultra-widescreen frame, captures Trauner's gorgeously-appointed sets and Givenchy's gorgeously-appointed outfits—clearly gorgeously-appointed in cooperation with one another, too—and does so with splendid pop-art vividness. Altogether, Wyler imposes such an arresting balance upon his images that I feel bad for ever implying he was the least important figure in the film's production, because he made it one of the most beautiful comedies of the 1960s. It has a formal grace that scarcely permits you to perceive its leads as anything but the most refined humans who ever lived, even when they're being hilariously snitty, or amusingly stupid, which truthfully is most of the time. It's amusing enough, anyway, that even visiting the supporting cast of full-on cartoon characters, with Griffith's Charles in the vanguard—and spending much of his screentime tilting against a crass, commercial age that no longer has any place for the great fakes—winds up being a genuinely pleasurable sideshow, rather than just zany dead air.
It is, all told, close to flawless—aesthetically, emotionally, whatever—and as strong an argument for the continued health of the Old Hollywood style in 1966 as anything could be, except, that is, for the fact that it lost money. Then, the following year, Bonnie and Clyde—a "romance" of sorts, I guess—came out, and demonstrated what Boomer audiences actually wanted to see. O tempora.
*Shirley MacLaine probably doesn't really "count." Though her other Children's Hour co-star, James Garner, was only a year older.
*Shirley MacLaine probably doesn't really "count." Though her other Children's Hour co-star, James Garner, was only a year older.