Directed by Ronald Neame
Written by Sidney Carroll, Jack Davies, Alvin Sargent, and Shirley MacLaine
Spoilers: well, I'm going to discuss the beginning whether they like it or not, so—apparently—"catastrophically severe"
I am not one for conspiracy theories, and suspiciously similar-looking movies come out in the same year all the time, so perhaps you could just call it the same solutions to the same problems of how to effect a fun, frothy romantic comedy heist film with pretensions towards class and refinement. And yet it is awfully hard to accept that Universal's Gambit is the result of just dumb blind chance, or frankly anything less than corporate espionage (or, if its premise were never that closely-kept a secret, then perhaps simply an active challenge from one major movie star to her peer competitor); for it is very difficult to accept that Sidney Caroll's story or Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent's screenplay drafts were not written with an awareness of William Wyler's late-career masterpiece How To Steal a Million, presumably under the assumption that Steal a Million would be 20th Century Fox's big hit for the summer of 1966, rather than an overbudgeted commercial disappointment.
It's not only that Universal made a sexy couples caper, as that was hardly unusual—this had been a subgenre that had never been allowed to lay too fallow since being confirmed by To Catch a Thief, and had already been amply represented this year, not just by Steal a Million, but by Universal's own Arabesque. If the similarities ended there, then, you wouldn't even notice, but if I described some unnamed film, premised upon an unnamed female screen legend's induction into crime and romance by an unnamed handsome Brit just now ascending to Hollywood stardom, who've teamed up to steal a priceless statue that just-so-happens to resemble the leading lady, from an art gallery where it just-so-happens to be protected by a grid of infrared beams... well, you'd be lost, because that exact thing happened in June in Steal a Million and then it happened again in December in Gambit, both delivered under the mod seal of Robert McGinnis poster artwork. It doesn't help that all throughout a three-person commentary track for Gambit, all of them historians, they mention To Catch a Thief, Topkapi, Charade, and Arabesque (and even Trouble In Paradise, then thirty-four years old, and even the The Italian Job, which didn't exist yet), and at a certain point you start aggressively demanding the disembodied voices on your blu-ray explain themselves, asking, "were you explicitly told by Universal's lawyers not to mention How To Steal a Million, or what?" Okay, yeah. That was probably just me. (Though I think they do mention My Fair Lady.)
I wish they had remarked upon it even slightly, because every little factoid they drop suggests, nope, they really were just independently-developed movies that happened to converge upon one another in impossible-to-ignore ways, and certainly it's not some outright clone, as its remarkable and unique first act immediately indicates.
We begin in Hong Kong, where we follow along with Harry Dean (Michael Caine), driving down the street in some not-very-well-accomplished process shots that somewhat make it look like Harry's in a hovercar about to take off and fly into the sky. In fact, he's here stalking one Nicole Chang (one-quarter Chinese on her father's side; Shirley MacLaine), and presently languishing as a dancer in a downmarket Hong Kongese bar. As Harry explains to his partner Emile Fournier (John Abbott), she's the lynchpin of a scheme that will make them wealthy, noting, in particular, that she is the very image of the long-dead wife of the richest man in the world, Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), a recluse who never remarried and, it is said, gave the highest price ever paid for any work of art for a bust of Empress Lissu of China, daughter of a Burmese mother and Greek father, for it too resembled his dead wife. Harry has reasoned that A = B and B = C, and to this end recruits Nicole to pose as his wife to get close to Shahbandar, thereby giving him the opportunity to get close to the bust of Empress Lissu. And his plan comes off without a hitch.
The problem is that none of this has actually happened, and Gambit's chutes-and-ladders screenplay plops us right back down at the beginning in that Hong Kongese bar. It's already a confident, even reasonably nervy opening gesture—it is 27 minutes and 30 seconds in before we're returned to the objective narrative in a transition so woozy that it takes another moment before cinematographer Clifford Stine can put MacLaine back in proper focus—and therefore it's a gesture that demands your patience in exchange for intrigue in any case. Yet it's maybe not entirely out of the question that we're still watching something normal, since, after all, a lot of heist and caper movies hinge on a plan laid out in fine detail so that we can comprehend the way those details crumple once they impact reality. Perhaps this one has simply offered a higher-resolution picture than usual.
And that's somewhat the case, but it's such an understated way to put it that it's basically a lie about how Gambit works: structurally, this is astoundingly bold, and it knocks my socks off that the cycle of 60s heist films managed to produce such a flattening deconstruction of its own genre so early in its existence. The "fake-out" first act is obvious enough about being unreal to let you know something's up, though despite the poster's injunction not to spoil the beginning, I personally believe that foreknowledge helps, since otherwise it is still 27 minutes and 30 seconds of being weird and stand-offish for no apparent reason. But the most obvious weirdness, of course, is the fact that MacLaine doesn't breathe a single word of dialogue till we're back in "reality," and Nicole is rendered very nearly as impassive as the statuary Harry desires. (This was MacLaine's own idea, and it's such a big deal, emphasizing the right things so well, that I'm comfortable according her an honorary co-writer credit even though, naturally, she wouldn't have gotten one.) Director Ronald Neame, a veteran with a lifetime of experience at this point, shepherds his first act through to its happy ending with subtler measures, too, though maybe they're only subtle next to MacLaine's silent posing. He and editor Alma Macrorie favor a highly elliptical approach, moving us directly from quiet triumph to quiet triumph; and, as for Neame's visual construction, practically every single shot in this first act takes on an angle so acute that the camera's nearly on the floor, a constant reminder of Harry's control of a situation he has engineered with diamond precision, till at last he says his goodbyes to Nicole and absconds with the most valuable artwork on Earth, whereupon his fantasy concludes.
The thing about Harry's fantasy is that it is Harry's fantasy, and things go awry the very instant he comes back to reality. It turns out he can't even competently proposition a bargirl, sputteringly explaining that actually he just wants Nicole to join him at his table; meanwhile, it turns out Nicole has a great deal to say after all. Neame doesn't completely upend his film's style the moment we touch solid ground—it's still a cheerful, colorful caper (and the aesthetics are more noticeably different in the normalization of the editing rhythms than in the shot selection, though, amusingly, it turns out that all the elisions the editing had previously been making contained numerous important complicating factors after all)—but in any event, those domineering low-angles are kept more in check going forward. At least once, they become an active visual joke, when "Sir" Harry and "Lady" Nicole arrive, and they begin to stride through customs at the same low-angle we've become used to, but instead of a breezy playboy given access to any corner of the globe he wishes, Harry is of course just some random nobody to the officials, and they give him the usual hassle they would anybody else, at which point the camera is obliged to shift to frame-right and in the process untilts itself, turning Harry and Nicole, situationally and visually alike, into figures of awkward mediocrity. Caine's performance likewise shifts, from cool and collected, to barely restraining himself from throwing a bitchy little tantrum, except when he's alone with Nicole, where he doesn't restrain himself.
And it goes along like that for a long, hilarious second act, in which it's revealed, over and over, that our self-procalimed mastermind's plan depended upon the most utterly dumbassed assumptions that were wrong in almost every single detail, from the trivial (he can't even get his accomplice to wear the dress he picked out), to the revealing (his mental pictures of Nicole and Shahbandar alike take on an orientalizing bent that isn't remotely accurate to their characters), to the profound (he conceived his plan based on a room layout in a magazine photo spread from eleven years ago). As a vicious parody of the 60s wave of globe-trotting caper flicks—as a send-up of how deeply we want to buy into the godlike mastery of our super-spies and heist film heroes—Gambit is a complete success, endlessly rubbing Harry's nose in the dirt of all his own fuck-ups, and always doing so with a straight face, which only makes it funnier.
That keeps Gambit spectacularly joyful right up until its third act, which, inevitably, is tasked with pulling this out-of-control contraption back onto its genre rails, and it can't. It surely doesn't succeed on its other main metric: it's so bad at being a romance that if I didn't know that it was supposed to be I'm not sure I'd have figured it out, at least not till Nicole started making doe-eyes at her jackass boss. It's not that Harry's sharp edges and Nicole's scatterbrain couldn't work, it's that they don't seem to have tried to make their dynamic work. Neame and MacLaine and their screenwriters just plain forgot to put some middle part between Harry hectoring Nicole and Harry falling for Nicole; they never find much reason for Nicole to even like Harry. It's certainly not because he's a good master criminal, and even if he were, Nicole somewhat deflates the heist movie in progress, as she grows incredibly scowly and square about Harry's whole plan.
In this respect, it does feel like it's trying to mirror Steal a Million, only incredibly badly: Steal a Million banked on the primal thrill of watching Audrey Hepburn slowly realize that doing crimes with Peter O'Toole got her wet; MacLaine takes the complete opposite tack, which might've made sense if Gambit had managed to incorporate Shahbandar more fully into the proceedings as something besides a jolly obstacle to Harry's scheme (and indeed, it actively runs away from that: one of the film's best unstressed jokes at Harry's expense is that, sentimentality for his dead wife's likeness aside, Shahbandar stopped grieving her long ago, and doesn't give much of a shit about Nicole merely looking like her). Unfortunately, it's vastly more of a straight line we get than any triangle, and even that straight line feels dashed, with the distinct feeling that tentative romantic overtures should've gone into at least some of those narrative gaps. It still functions, and the heist must go on; Nicole, portrayed by a flexible trained dancer, gets a crucial part to play after all, and this scene's especially thrilling because it was never in Harry's design (even if the crimped geometry of the heist strongly indicates that MacLaine's butt would've set the alarm off anyway). But there's a very stupid simultaneous climax to the heist and to the romantic arc that somehow degrades Gambit more than all its previous romantic dyspepsia put together.
Even so, by the time it hits its third or fourth twist in its extended denouement—its very final frames—it'd gotten me somewhat back on its side. I left it with a nice smile anyway, if maybe not the full-faced grin I had during the middle. That middle is extraordinary though (and, thus, so is the beginning), and so I can't say Gambit isn't worth a spin even if its crappier parts, thanks to their placement, damage it all out of proportion to how actually bad they are.