Reeling Backward: Gambit (1966)
Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are a curious couple in this frisky heist/romance romp as a thief and the woman he recruits as bait.
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It’s always strange to me to encounter early movies starring Shirley MacLaine when she was stuck firmly in her ingenue stage. I grew up with her as an older woman in dramatic roles, and still can’t wrap my head around all these flicks where she plays ditzy sex ba-bombs.
“Gambit” hasn’t aged all that well since 1966, notably for the fact it has MacLaine playing a Eurasian showgirl who spends most of the movie done up in a stereotypical Chinese style working to pull one over on an Arab millionaire, played by a Czech-born actor.
What can one say; it was the style at the time.
At least Caine gets to show off his authentic Cockney accent playing Harry Dean, who fancies himself a world-renowned cat burglar. Turns out he’s more a puffed-up pretender, whose scheme succeeds despite rather than because of his best efforts. “Gambit” is now out in a splendid new Blu-ray reissue from Kino Lorber.
Directed by Ronald Neame (“Great Expectations”) from a script by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent (story by Sidney Carroll), it’s a light and frisky heist/romance romp with bright colors and terrific production values. “Gambit” earned three Oscar nominations for art direction, costumes and sound.
The setup is that Harry believes Nicole (MacLaine), a nomadic daughter of British and Chinese parents, is the perfect doppelgänger for the late wife of Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), a reclusive Arab oil tycoon whose true passion is art. His plan is to ensorcell Shabandar with her resemblance, parlay that into an invitation to his inner sanctum, and then make off with a priceless ancient Greek bust of Lissu that resembles both Nicole and the deceased spouse.
What’s interesting about the movie is that we open with Harry presenting his idea to Nicole in the Hong Kong nightclub where she works, with his partner Emile (John Abbott) in tow. We actually get to see the scheme play out in its entirety to flawless perfection over about 20 minutes, with Harry resembling sort of dashing mashup of James Bond and Cary Grant’s John Robie from “To Catch a Thief.”
Notably, Nicole does not even speak or change expression during this sequence, operating literally as a wordless automaton.
The time then snaps back to the present, and we realize this has all just been Harry relaying his plan to Emile. We then get to see it play out in reality, where of course almost nothing goes off as Harry predicted, who gets quite flustered and angry about it.
Let’s start with Nicole herself, who is much smarter and sassier than Harry supposed, constantly bantering away on conversational tangents that annoy him to no end. This is, of course, until near the finale when he realizes he’s madly in love with her, and vice-versa.
Shabandar is also very different from the “plan” version, not a fez-wearing simpleton but quite a cagey operator who is immediately suspicious of Harry and Nicole when they walk into the hotel he owns (along with much of the rest of his unnamed nation). He quickly susses out that Sir Harry and Lady Dean are low-level imposters.
But he’s intrigued by the obvious preparation and resources that went into concocting this sham, and decides to let it play out for a bit of fun. He’s quite certain that his bust of Lissu is in no danger owing to the next-gen devices he has protecting it, including “electronic eye” beams that sound an alarm and seal all the doors if anyone gets too close to his prize.
So it’s an ongoing game of one-upsmanship and double-dealing, where everyone thinks they’ve got the upper hand but in fact are in for some surprises.
MacLaine isn’t terribly convincing as an Asian, even a mixed-parentage one, speaking with a very American accent that’s closer to Brooklyn honk than British lilt. Emma Stone’s more recent attempt at a similar role in “Aloha” a few years ago shows that Hollywood still hasn’t gotten over its affair with pasty-skinned Caucasians cast as Far Easterners.
It’s not quite as bad as John Wayne as Genghis Khan, but it’s on the spectrum.
Caine is charismatic and edgy as Harry, a guy who thinks very much of himself and is constantly raving about his foolproof plan. Even though little goes his way, he is evidently a decently clever chap. For instance, he takes one look at Shabandar’s fancy gizmo protecting the bust and realizes he can pry open the gilded cage bars above it and get at the loot.
The ending is quite delish. In the promotional campaign for “Gambit,” the studio actually bragged that it was OK for audiences to give away the ending — as long as they didn’t give away the beginning.
Harry, hopelessly outclassed by Shabandar’s resources, returns the original bust to him, which he had switched with the decoy the Arab kept on display. He explains to Nicole that Emile had already created his own perfect copy, with a trio of potential buyers lined up to pay top dollar for it.
Enraged over Harry’s crooked ways, Nicole threatens to leave him, so Harry smashes the ersatz bust to prove his true affection for her, and they leave together a happy if penniless couple. Though Emile still has a trick or two (or three) up his sleeve.
“Gambit” is old-fashioned filmmaking, classic storylines with a bit of Mod flash to liven up the trappings. I appreciated the multiple fake-outs and switcheroos, even if the boy/girl romantic stuff feels like the thinnest of veneers.