Many moons ago, a local Pittsburgh newspaper journalist whose name has been lost in the mists of my memory, wrote an Andy Rooney-esque rant about all the things that were wrong with movies “these days”. Nearish to the middle of his lament was that there were “many heist movies being made, but not a lot of caper movies”. For years, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Heists and capers both involved plots devised by groups to steal things of varying unimaginable richness. Wherein lied the distinction? Gradually, I began to discern the difference. Both The Score and Heist are “heist” films (obviously), while both versions of The Italian Job and Topkapi are caper films, as is Big Deal on Madonna Street, even though the biggest crime committed in this latter film is burglary of soup. Oddly, the movie cited as the masterpiece of caper films, Rififi, is actually a heist film, and not a caper film. The main defining characteristic of the two similar genres are in tone. In heist movies, the stakes are larger, often in terms of life and death, where the financier of the crime can have the perpetrators murdered or otherwise fatally double-crossed. Heist movies are often described as “taut”. In caper films, the crime is committed either out of boredom or adventure, with the thieves a merry band of pranksters, as opposed to hardened career criminals. In reviewing caper movies, the adjective “breezy” is often employed. Both subsets can be equally enjoyable, but the heist movie often ends with a gut-punch, the caper movie with a jaunty musical sting.
To that end, Gambit is a dyed-in-the-wool caper movie. Fun and fun-loving, it involves an intricate plot to steal a priceless marble bust. The charming Harry Tristan Dean is the mastermind, Emile Fournier the bankroll, Ahmad Shahbandar the mark and Nicole Chang both the shill and the key. As Harry outlines the entire plan to Emile in the film’s opening twenty minutes, once executed to the last detail this plan is, he intones, “foolproof”. As the key, Nicole is intrinsic to the plan, due to her uncanny resemblance to Shabandar’s late wife, who was also a dead-ringer for the subject of the priceless marble bust. All Harry has to do is put Nicole in Shabandar’s path and await for the rich man’s inevitable heart-struck distraction to allow the necessary time in which to perpetrate the heist. Again: “foolproof”.
Were this a heist film, Harry’s scheme would be borne of desperation; Shabandar a ruthless criminal; Nicole’s subterfuge would be perilous. Gambit being a caper film, the stakes are high, but not quite that high. And the caper itself all hinges on Harry’s “foolproof” plan executing without a hitch. Twenty-one minutes in, the viewer is made acutely aware that Harry’s plan is, in fact, doomed from the start. Not just because Shabandar’s hotel has changed staff, replacing a gullible concierge with a suspicious one, and not just because a crucial marketplace payphone is consistently occupied. Mainly this plan is doomed because Harry isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, Shabandar isn’t as stupid as Harry hopes he’ll be and Nicole is nowhere near the pliable, obeying stooge he needs her to be. “Breezy” Gambit is, indeed.
The early ‘60s were great times for both Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. With the former coming off an international hit, The Ipcress File (and the soon-to-be smash hit Alfie) and MacLaine one of the most sought-after female stars thanks to “little” movies like Can-Can with Sinatra, Irma La Douce with Jack Lemmon and What a Way to Go! with everybody, putting them together in an obvious audience-pleaser seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, MacLaine was given her pick of leading men for Gambit and chose Caine herself. For Caine, the buffoonishly charming thief character was the perfect choice for his first American studio film, so that decision didn’t take long for him to reach. Solid character actors Herbert Lom and John Abbott were tapped for the supporting roles of Shabandar and Fournier and the formula for success was placed in the capable hands of Robert Neame (whose own masterpiece, Hopscotch with Walter Matthau, was still fourteen years in the making, though the cinematographer-turned-director had no grass growing under his feet in ’66).
While Gambit was following an already well-worn formula, setting up the twist and the fall in the first act was a genius move, attributable to screenwriters Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent (adapting Sidney (screenplay The Hustler) Carroll's story). The romantic leads’ on-screen chemistry is undeniable, though this is really a romantic triangle, adding Lom’s bemused “fifth or fourteenth richest man in the world” (“What the hell does it matter?” demands an exasperated Harry) to the mix. Lom’s Shabandar is the movie’s greatest twist. Neither a ruthless kingpin nor a political dupe, Lom knows upon meeting the pair that they’re up to something, but he isn’t sure what. Curious and entertained, he strings them along, allowing Harry to feel in complete control, even when yanking the rug out from under the self-styled mastermind’s feet by revealing himself to be in touch with the world and possessing a “great love of gadgets”, such as the statue’s pedestal surrounded by laser-eyes, sonic detectors and a decorative brass cage.
By Gambit’s third act, we as the audience are aware of what is supposed to happen, and by now we’ve doped out how it’s not going to happen, the fun is watching what will happen and how it still won’t work out the way we expect. Even with almost fifty years worth of movie history coming after its release, creating generations of savvy cinema scholars, Gambit doesn’t fail to delight and keep its audiences getting until the final, pre-credits tag. Even if you do manage to forsee all the twists, the fun you’ll have with the film shouldn’t diminish. Despite the swinging ‘60s couture and saturated Technicolor photography, Gambit always feels fresh and new as it unspools.
Maybe too fresh, it might seem, as this movie is one of those often bandied about as being the next big things in remakes. Colin Firth was attached to it for the longest time, at one point paired with Sandra Bullock, often under the reported producing hands of the Coen Brothers, but so far, our culture has been mercilessly Gambit-remake-free. (Despite how undoubtedly wonderful the Coen Brothers version would be.)
The usual bad news: Gambit is consistently out-of-print, though the Universal DVD isn’t too hard to find online and offers a gorgeous transfer. This isn’t a movie for the cynical, though. If, within moments after watching, you feel the need to rush to the Netflix’s message boards and register your complaint of “worst movie ever”, not only is your heart two sizes too small, but your soul is also full of gunk. In short: you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch, and I want nothing to do with you.