Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Almost a Million Things to Love About This Film!: "How to Steal a Million" (1966)

Audrey Hepburn's 1960's streak continued with this very clever heist farce starring a dreamy Peter O'Toole.

Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn) lives with her father Charles (Hugh Griffith), an art forger who cannot seem to stop forging art from his large home in Paris. His specialty is copying the paintings of great artists, and he is considered a great collector as well. Forgery is a family tradition, as Nicole's grandfather also carved a fake work of Benvenuto Cellini, using his wife as a model. Because Nicole's father specializes in paintings, this "Venus" statue is loaned to a local museum and is put on display for all to see (no way anyone could conclude it is a forgery). The family refuses all offers for the small statue.

Simon (Peter O'Toole) is also interested in art- stealing it. After being caught with one of Charles' fake Van Goghs and being wounded by Nicole (in one of the film's funniest scenes), Simon starts falling for Nicole. His competition is Davis (a surprising Eli Wallach), an American businessman and also an art collector, who is after some of Charles' works. Things are going fine for the Bonnets until the small matter of insuring their "Venus" statue comes up. The papers are signed, the statue is behind an elaborate security system and a score of guards at the museum, but a visiting professor must examine the statue as a formality to make sure it is authentic. Nicole fears her father will be arrested for forgery, goes to Simon, and the heist is on.

Director William Wyler holds the most nominations record for the Best Director Academy Award at twelve, winning three times. To put that number in perspective, Spielberg and Scorsese have been nominated eight times each. Wyler seemed to do it all- from costume melodramas ("Jezebel") to big budget epics ("Ben-Hur"), along with homefront war films ("Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives") and even musicals and comedies ("Funny Girl," "Roman Holiday"). "How to Steal a Million" is an unabashed romantic comedy, and Wyler expertly helms it. There is not a bombastic score (by a young John Williams) to tell you when something is funny, and Wyler gets likable performances out of his cast. He allows the story and screenplay to run their course, both of which held my interest and generated actual suspense.

Hepburn is magical onscreen, and once again she has undeniable chemistry with a male costar. O'Toole is light and wonderful as Simon, knowing more than he lets on. The actual museum heist is excellent and funny (between this film and Blake Edwards' "The Pink Panther" series, Paris law enforcement didn't come off looking too good in this decade). Wallach (in a role meant for George C. Scott) is also funny. Griffith should have received an Oscar nomination as Charles. His character sees nothing wrong with what he is doing, and he and Hepburn have fun in their roles. The chic mod Paris locale is beautiful (back when swilling Scotch and smoking cigarettes seemed to have no detrimental effect on one's health).

I loved "How To Steal A Million" from start to finish. Harry Kurnitz' screenplay is marvelous, the technical aspects are crisp and clear, and even small roles like the insurance agent and the chief guard have characteristics that put them above "bit player" status. It is the work of cinematic experience and intelligence, both in front of and behind the camera, plus it's loads of fun. (* * * * *) out of five stars.