Directed by Delbert Mann
Written by Isobel Lennart (based on the novel A Garden of Cucumbers by Poyznt Tyler)
To speak generally, the purpose of the criminal caper genre is to be irresponsible, and, accordingly, that is where its pleasures are found. Maybe it is not its only purpose every time, but just by using the word "caper," I have, by connotation, all but completely excluded anything that isn't supposed to be, above all, fun, and hence the usual point of them is to vicariously tag along with people whose moral accounting of the world insists that the money—or jewels, or art, or secret plans, or whatever—that are sitting over there would be put to a significantly better use with them over here, and this utilitarian calculus outweighs all the small, or medium-sized, or (occasionally) life-endangering harms which they inflict to get it. The trick, obviously, is that you should never start questioning whether that calculus is apt. It's not a difficult trick, since for most people the desire to vicariously enjoy watching someone put one over on a cruel and vulgar world runs pretty deep, but there should be some effort put into convincing you that they're worthy of their prize, and as it's best to keep them amoral rather than immoral, they can't be too irresponsible. Fitzwilly is one of the most irresponsible caper films imaginable that still stays on the right side of the line. Its heist is distinguishable from an act of terrorism only because it isn't directly violent, and while we are invited to assume that nobody was actually killed, it's a miracle they weren't. (A Christmas miracle, even, for Fitzwilly is also a Christmas heist movie—you know, like Die Hard.) That goofy poster with Dick Van Dyke stealing, like, the Capitol Building isn't very germane to the plot; but the spirit is about right.
There's a significant amount of movie to go before we get there, indeed a lot more than would usually be the case: a heist doesn't appear to be structuring this heist film's story at all till at most ten minutes (possibly rather less) before the heist actually begins, and if the heist is therefore structuring it without appearing to, that's probably just because you figured out from narrative first principles (or somebody told you ahead of time) that at some point, all of the little crimes will fail, so there'll be need for one big one. It's all pretty great, though, the recipient of an unusual approach for a heist movie that makes it more like a cozy—even worrisomely cozy!—romantic comedy that simply happens to have caper elements, until it blasts into one startlingly big heist.
Before then, however, let us attend to Claude Fitzwilliam (Van Dyke), "Fitzwilly" to all who know him (even to the point that my very minorest complaint about the movie is that one character probably should graduate to finally calling him freaking "Claude"). Fitzwilly is the head butler to the elderly spinster, Miss Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans), the heiress to what she believes is an enormous old money estate, large enough that as far as she's concerned, it's basically unlimited, and she probably doesn't even know how much money she has, since Fitzwilly has managed her finances for as long as he's been her butler. This may not be going where you believe it will: Ms. Vicky is, yes, flat broke, but not because of her butler; she never really inherited anything more than the house she lives in. Nevertheless, Fitzwilly and the larger part of the staff (a collection of character actors somewhat lost to time, but most notably John McGiver and an infant-like Sam Waterston) have spent this entire time contriving ever-more elaborate schemes to conceal this from her, because they like the status quo. They have done this, predominantly, by scamming stores, infiltrating other households, and helping themselves to the charge accounts of every other oblivious heir in Ms. Vicky's social circle. They've gotten so good at this that it's become their whole way of life: some time before we're aware of exactly what he's doing or why, or even exactly who he is, this is how we meet Fitzwilly, in a capery montage wherein Van Dyke affects several not-quite-persuasive European accents under several assumed names, and goes on a "shopping" excursion across all of Manhattan's toniest stores.
It would be a lot easier if Ms. Vicky, in her great generosity, would stop spending nine out of every ten dimes they scam on random charities. But Fitzwilly is good at this: presently, he's even hatched a scheme to help out another, even-more crooked butler down in Florida (Stephen Strimpell, spending his entire time in the movie shrieking humorously at Van Dyke over the phone). Fitzwilly's southern counterpart has profligately spent half his family's redecorating budget on himself, but he's very eager to fork over the remaining $75,000 to Fitzwilly, if Fitzwilly can get him $150,000 worth of new furnishings. And that oughtn't be a problem for a man of Fitzwilly's talents, and with this windfall even Ms. Vicky's whimsies should be manageable. But now enters into their den of iniquity an outsider, hired as a result of one of those whimsies, a temp secretary to help Ms. Vicky with her long-gestating literary opus, a dictionary for poor spellers. This is Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon) and she's bound to notice the massive criminal undertaking sooner or later, and it's going to be even more complicated once the instant rivalry she picks with Fitzwilly blossoms into a barely-denied attraction and an overriding curiosity why this man is so content with being "just" a butler. It doesn't help when Ms. Vicky blows through that $75,000 immediately.
So the other irresponsible thing is just baked right into that creatively quaint little premise, with a gang of thieves committing a couple of felonies a week just so their careless idle rich mistress can remain careless, rich, and idle, and you don't have to pretend too terribly hard to hear the whisper of class satire in Isobel Lennart's screenplay, a whisper which may or may not be more audible in Poynzt Tyler's source novel. (I assume its Bible quote name, A Garden of Cucumbers, taken from the verses in Isaiah that envision the devastation of Judah, means something, though I'm unsure what; a little more concretely, Fitzwilly's fencing operation, the St. Dismas Thrift Shop, nods to Christianity's very first saint, the penitent thief who shared a hill one day with Jesus.)
Well, if the movie sounds like it's about such a profound inability to imagine relationships outside of a capitalist hierarchy that you'd happily do crimes just to keep up your boss's lifestyle, the movie welcomes us to that interpretation, even if we are, doubtless, inventing it on its behalf. It's much more about the filial vibes of that relationship—and for Fitzwilly, effectively raised by his beloved Ms. Vicky, those filial vibes are all-but-literal—and I like how unique this makes his movie, because there aren't too many heist films founded upon a masterful outlaw whose chief motivation is how much he loves his mother, and whose secondmost-important motivation is keeping his "siblings" united and secure, rather than scattered to the four winds in search of new positions in an old-fashioned social niche that was already in the process of fading into history. It's a little more explicitly about class with Juliet, who slides from hating Fitzwilly to hectoring him to get a better job, somewhat expressly so she'd be less embarrassed to date him, and that's her problem but it's one that Fitzwilly, in his Van Dykey charisma (and with the backfiring romantic overtures that he expects will just disgust her), overcomes by pure accident. So I suppose the other thing Fitzwilly has going for it is that it's the erotic crime movie about the effortlessly cool 42 year old virgin, and that has got to be entirely unique.
That is, of course, what we have here, and it's one of Fitzwilly's biggest successes as well as one of its bigger weaknesses. The success of it is found principally outside of the screenplay and is down pretty much to Feldon and Van Dyke, with what we can generously assume is some non-trivial connivance from director Delbert Mann, who seems aware there is a boundary between "romantic farce" and "erotic crime movie" that he'd like to push, without being quite sure where that boundary lies. Anyway, it's mainly Feldon, whose Juliet can be written a little like a killjoy—she wants Fitzwilly to give up his life of crime, and ultimately even interferes (to no particular significance) in the heist—but is rarely played like a killjoy, and typically isn't photographed like one, either. I'm earnestly not sure Lennart had seen How To Steal a Million, the apex of the erotic heist film, when she wrote Fitzwilly, but I am very, very that sure Feldon had, and she takes on the burden, with noticeable gusto, of making this movie actually horny, her carriage shifting upon her discovery that her butler beau is not just some lazy servile, but instead a master criminal, going all slinky for his crimes (but complicating this, it's in no small part because his crimes indicate such a fundamentally-sweet disposition). She spins the dialogue, too, that might have otherwise dragged on the erotic mood, so that her reproaches are more along the lines of "oh no, but I'm a good girl." She's strong, likewise, in her more skeptical first phase as a foil—altogether enough that I wish I were even passingly familiar with her main claim to fame, Get Smart.
I feel like that's an easy rapport to have with Van Dyke, whose Rob Petrieness and general wackiness I suppose put him afield of the smoldering, often-callous 60s male romantic lead, but besides just cutting a gorgeously-linear masculine silhouette in his suits and suit-vests, there's the characteristic underlying niceness that Van Dyke did so well, and that's naturally been on full display already, with his quasi-paternal affection for his "family," and which he doesn't even adulterate much with his equally-characteristic comic irascibility (Van Dyke is putting on a real performance here, expertly modulating his penchant for rubbery silliness within a more buttoned-down character, and letting it out wisely, most effectively with a hilariously-crestfallen little silent "no" where he somehow makes his cheeks shake like the skin isn't attached by as much connective tissue to his face as it should be while his eyes stay locked in nauseated anxiety). Meanwhile, though, there's maybe an uncharacteristic full response to Feldon's chemistry, inasmuch as this is a Van Dyke romantic comedy where you could readily imagine Van Dyke fucking his co-star if you so wished. (I said the screenplay isn't horny, and while I guess I can't assume that "Fitzwilly slaps Juliet's ass and she makes a sexy sarcastic retort" was not written down, I somewhat doubt the stage directions "sensuously caress each others' faces in tight Panavision two-shots" was.)
It does eventually run into the problem that no amount of chemistry or spin is going to fully overcome, that unlike How To Steal a Million, Juliet is not invited to the heist, thereby mostly separating the two most enjoyable things the movie has to offer, which just seems incorrect. She does interpose herself, but by accident; her contribution to the heist is berating Fitzwilly for, well, being irresponsible with the welfare of some of the heist's unwitting participants, the collection of scouts that Ms. Vicky has put together as another act of philanthropy, whose job here is to sing carols as part of an overarching plan of sowing chaos.
And what a pity she's not involved, for it is such splendid chaos! In honesty, I don't know how to rate Mann as a filmmaker—I've only seen two of his movies, and the other one is the worst and worst-looking of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies—but despite that bad first impression, I surely must rate him higher now. It's almost too much formalism, and I don't think it could be just a complete accident of Robert Boyle's art direction and (no relation) Edward Boyle's set decoration that it falls into such an effective if maybe a (very mildly) wearisome formal strategy. Fitzwilly is almost absurdly stately, is the thing, and a majority of the movie is spent in the Woodworth house's various brown-and-beige rooms, each festooned with brown-and-beige bric-a-brac, a color scheme only broken when it leaves Fitzwilly's abode to treat upon various confidence scheme modules, which mostly take place in the cream-and-beige rooms of his various corporate victims. (It's worth noting, incidentally, how many real trademarks Fitzwilly got to use in its production, considering the message of the movie seems to be that they're run by easily-bamboozled morons.)
There's sometimes a flash of color—usually in the context of the aforementioned brown or beige—but the main injection of color is just Feldon, who by virtue of wearing the normal casual feminine clothes of a late 60s moonlighting grad student (why, her turtleneck sweaters are sometimes orange or red), comes off as the flashiest element around. And I expect it's not an accident that when she learns Fitzwilly's secret and makes an effort to join her lover's underworld, she's adopted a dress of dull brown. It is, nevertheless, a handsome thing: DP Joseph Biroc captures the "quiet elegance" that Fitzwilly has spoken of, and Mann is tasteful and restrained in the construction of his widescreen shots, with an orderliness that underlines Fitzwilly's control. The most noticeable "filmmaking" for the first hour is probably just the steady dolly-ins that Mann uses to subtly intensify the situation when Fitzwilly is scamming shopkeepers; if not that, the increasingly wide shot scales on Strimpell in his increasing barren and mausoleum-like mansion. (In fairness to Mann, one of the film's single biggest laughs is an extremely wide and lonely shot of Strimpell and a Steinway piano.) Notwithstanding Van Dyke's introductory direct address that situates the film in a kind of heightened movie-movie territory (and, having done so, thankfully never breaks the fourth wall again), I'm not sure that either editing or the frame is used to sell any other gag until the moment, more than an hour in, that Fitzwilly's control is called into question, whereupon the camera pans across his ill-gained treasures (that is, the random junk he had to take from an Abercrombie & Fitch display to keep his cover) under a voiceover reading a newspaper item about this funny robbery to find that Juliet is already there, pouting in cautious arousal. So all this has its compensations—I can happily find this kind of reciting-cute-dialogue-in-as-deep-focus-as-Panavision-gets mid-century aesthetic soothing—but the important part is that, having been soothed, when Fitzwilly throws us into the bold holiday colors and new, acute angles that attend our good butler's heist of Gimbels on Christmas Eve, it feels like an outright hallucination.
It's a magnificent work of art direction—the only tell it isn't a real store is that the walls are too clean and freshly-painted, which in the gaudiness of its cheerful Christmas decoration only increases its hallucinatory cast—and in service to a heist of such unreasonable recklessness that it's a mistake, over and above "why aren't you letting Feldon be an enthusiastic participant?", for Juliet to note how unreasonably reckless. It basically involves creating the conditions for a deadly riot as cover, and drives this home with a veritable throng of marvelously-game extras; at one point Frank Tashlin was attached to direct, but I don't think it could be that much more anarchic within the fundamental order of our butler's master plan. Fitzwilly meticulously orchestrates every note of this symphony of flailing madness, mocking the crush of a crowd on Christmas Eve: blocking exits; creating false advertisements to drive even more traffic in; disguising his crew as Gimbels employees; good gracious, one stage of the plan involves dozens of (very) light sexual assaults, and of the decade's regrettably-ubiquitous sexual assault jokes, ass-pinching on behalf of a heist might the funniest and most harmless, gender-wise, though half of the fun of it is that it's impossible to describe any of this as harmless. That indispensible sensation of a plan coming together arrives in part by reference to no less a classic than Rififi: and so does John Williams's score fall silent for the duration, until the climax brings it back. (It's a strong score, too: the title theme is a bit of a banger, with a cod-Englishness to its textures, and a lovely harpsiochord-driven breakdown that by itself is maybe the finest musical gesture Williams conceived prior to the 70s.*)
It's altogether wonderful and wild, and if it's let down it's mostly by things to the side of it—further complications that technically "pay off" on things that have been set up but it does feel like what it is, a denouement striving, even a little clumsily, for a reversal and then a reversal of the reversal. (Though to its benefit, this denouement does have Van Dyke's funniest line reads.) And it is very hard to completely forgive the wholly-unforced error of not yoking the figurative consummation of Fitzwilly and Juliet's romance to the heist itself, since those two things are the two reasons the film exists. But it's a terrific time, and deserves a much higher reputation amongst heist romances, heist comedies, and heist movies altogether.
*In this respect, then, "heist movies with Johnny Williams scores," Fitzwilly is better than How To Steal a Million.