Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In short: Gambit (1966)

Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and his friend Emile (John Abbott) have a most excellent plan to steal some of the art treasures of reclusive multi-(multi-multi-)millionaire Shahbandar (Herbert “Who’s Austro-Hungarian?” Lom). It’s simplicity itself, really: just hire passport-less dancer Nicole Chang (Shirley “Eurasian” MacLaine) who just happens to look exactly like Shahbandar’s dead wife to distract him, and steal away.

As it happens, Harry’s wonderful plan doesn’t really survive contact with reality, for neither is Shabandar as gullible as Harry expected, nor as easily distracted; and Nicole isn’t the walking manikin he dreams of either. Consequently, things get complicated fast.

Ronald Neame’s Gambit is a rather delightful caper movie, and I say that as someone who generally prefers heist movies to their comedic caper brethren, and only laughs on three pre-planned days per month (four days in October). However, Gambit does feature such a fine comedic cast, and such a clever script I didn’t actually want to resist it. Neame’s direction isn’t flashy, but he’s perfect with the pacing (something even I know to be most important in comedies), and does well with the curious semi-orientalist exoticism the film is playing with.

The film’s exoticism is of a very particular kind, though, always up to breaking away from cliché when the film wants to, something that does fit a film that is very much about the unpredictability of life and people very well. Consequently, this is a film where a rich – and what exactly is Shahbandar’s supposed to be, an Arab (and from where), a Muslim Indian, or what? – Eastern man takes people out to watch flamenco dancing.

Some of the film’s best scenes proceed in a comparable manner, first setting up Harry’s perfect, simple and orderly plan, and then showing it breaking down under contact with a more complex and just plain messier reality, particularly a woman who turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the mute, unblinking living doll of Harry’s imagining. And if you find a bit of matter of fact mainstream feminism hidden there, have a cookie, they’re very good.

Apart from that, Caine, MacLaine and Lom really are very enjoyable to watch together, with fine comedic interplay and very different approaches on how to deliver a punch line that come together exactly because of their difference. It’s all very delightful.

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