Wednesday, September 03, 2014

OVP: Gambit (1966)

Film: Gambit (1966)
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Herbert Lom, Roger C. Carmel, Arnold Moss, John Abbott
Director: Ronald Neame
Oscar History: 3 nominations (Best Art Direction, Costume, Sound)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

My DVR is starting to look a teensy bit full (you know you've hit a new level when you can record 130 hours of television and you still only have 8% available), so I will be hitting quite a few older OVP movies in the coming weeks in addition to our regularly-scheduled programming, many of which may not be available easily to everyone out there (as I detailed here), but hopefully they will compel you to check them out the next time they are on Turner Classic Movies or at least inspire you to head over to AMPAS or the studio's websites and ask them to release more of their films on DVD.

(Spoilers Ahead) Anyway, I adore caper films and both of the lead actors in this film, so it was an easy choice for me on which film to start this conquer the DVR campaign with.  Gambit is a story that is very of its time-it's hard to imagine even the most cunning of con-men could assume a mistaken identity would work on a billionaire today (which makes the inexplicable remake with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz all the more puzzling, and I would have imagined they would have had solid chemistry in a better film, so it's also a pity).  The film is about Harry Dean (Caine), a small-time crook who is trying to steal a priceless Chinese statuette from an eccentric and reclusive Arab billionaire (Lom, who was enjoying the peak success of his career at the time playing Inspector Dreyfus of the Pink Panther films for the first time two years earlier in A Shot in the Dark).  Dean sees an old magazine article where the love of Lom's life is featured, and he finds a woman named Nicole (MacLaine) who looks exactly like the billionaire's dead wife.  Harry hatches a plan to use Nicole to distract the billionaire while he steals the statuette.

Like all great caper films, of course, things are never that simple, though you'd think they were at least from the beginning half hour.  In the boldest move in the film, Neame pulls a misdirect on the audience for the first thirty minutes of the picture, having the caper go off without a hitch.  We see Harry's plan work perfectly, with MacLaine silent and mysterious throughout the entire first 29 minutes of the picture (to the point where the audience is stunned that the most famous actor, especially at the time, hasn't said a word!), only to realize that this is all just a dream-style sequence of Harry saying how he's sure the plan will work, only to realize that Nicole isn't as receptive to crime and staying quiet as he had hoped.

The film works well because of MacLaine and her chemistry with Caine.  Michael Caine, who was making his first American film with this picture and had just scored a massive hit in Alfie earlier that year (it would result in his first of many Oscar nominations-he's one of those rare actors who has been nominated the last five decades in a row), is fine in the lead role, though he doesn't quite have his cinematic bearings down.  For those who frequently picture a charming old butler when they think of Caine, it might be off-putting to see a handsome and charming younger version of Alfred the Butler in this role.  However, he's a bid stiff in the performance and probably could have enjoyed some loosening up in this role that only experience brings.  He's far better when he's opposite MacLaine (who selected him for the part, as she was a huge star at the time), who has an ease with the camera that comes with experience.  MacLaine gives her Nicole a flare, but also has the actorly sensibility to make her seem very grounded in reality-she knows the importance of the money she's getting, but also clearly wants more from her life than money or crime.  She's the one who sells the inevitable love story between the two, and gives a sense of vulnerability to the role.

The film received three Oscar nominations in 1966 (the last year where they separated Black/White and Color pictures for the technical categories, meaning lots more nominations and a lot more OVP for me): Sound Mixing, Costume, and Art Direction.  Considering it will probably be a few years before we get to the 1966 OVP (sorry-maybe if I win the lottery or something I can speed up my output), I feel I can say my opinions of these categories without too many spoilers.  Costume designs were by Jean Louis, one of the most iconic pop culture designers of his era (he designed not only for starlets like MacLaine, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, and his wife Loretta Young, but also for Marilyn Monroe in her famous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" dress, as well as later the Duchess of Windsor and former First Lady Nancy Reagan), and you can see the sophistication in the elegant evening wear worn by MacLaine.  In particular, the white one-shoulder dress worn in the climactic heist scenes toward the end is particularly striking and modern compared to some of the chic but traditional Chinese dresses worn earlier by MacLaine (the men's outfits are less inspired, as menswear wasn't supposed to be the focus to the same degree in that era).  The Art Direction seems to be mostly hotels, though there is a cool sequence with a rising room/elevator (ahh, the wonders of wealth) which is impressive and the hotels don't have that stodgy "staged" aspect that you usually see with films of this era.  The sound work is the only element of the film I was a little flummoxed by the nomination, though I find the further back in the pre-Jaws/blockbuster era, the more likely it is that a caper film or simply a well-regarded film gets a citation for sound.  Still, there is some strong balance between the quiet and the pinpoints of noise in the heist sequences, so perhaps it's a nomination with some merit.

And those are my thoughts on Gambit-have any of you seen it?  If so, do you share my assessment that this is all about the Shirley, or are you more supportive of Caine?  Where does its three Oscar nominations rank in your personal assessment of that year?  And why isn't this on Netflix?!?

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