Sunday, October 29, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #5: Gambit

GAMBIT (1966)
Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Nicole), Michael Caine (Harry), Herbert Lom (Shahbandar), Roger C Carmel (Ram), Arnold Moss (Abdul), John Abbott (Emile), Richard Angarola (Colonel Salim), Maurice Marsac (Hotel Clerk).
Crew: Ronald Neame (director), Leo L Fuchs (producer), Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent (writers), Maurice Jarre (music), Clifford Stine (cinematography), Alma Macrorie (editor), Alexander Golitzen and George C Webb (art directions).

Synopsis: Eurasian dancer Nicole is hired by British thief Harry to help him steal a priceless marble bust from the penthouse of the world’s richest men, Shahbandar. Nicole has a striking resemblance to the princess depicted in the bust, and to Shahbandar’s late wife. Harry is assisted by French sculptor Emile. But almost nothing goes according to Harry’s plan and he is forced to improvise, with help from Nicole. While Harry prepares to steal the bust, Nicole discovers Shahbandar has laid a trap for thieves. Nicole helps Harry get the statue but accidentally triggers the alarm system. She flees but Harry stays behind long enough to see the real bust is kept in a secret safe. News flashes around the world about the priceless statue’s theft. Nicole is captured by the police. Shahbandar sends her to Harry with a message – return the bust or suffer the consequences. But Harry never stole the real bust. He concealed it within Shahbandar’s penthouse. The fake bust was made for Shahbandar by Emile two years earlier. All Harry wanted was the publicity about the theft. Now he can make a fortune selling another replica of the bust made by Emile. Nicole is so disappointed by this duplicity, Harry smashes the replica to win her heart. After they have gone, Emile opens a cupboard to reveal three more replicas…

By the mid 1960s American actress Shirley MacLaine was a powerful player within Hollywood, able to select her own directors and leading men. She expressed an interest in having Sidney J. Furie direct Gambit and watched a screening of his most recent film, The Ipcress File (1965). Furie proved to be unavailable, but MacLaine’s eye was caught by the actor playing British spy Harry Palmer. She choose Caine to be her partner in crime for the caper movie. The screenplay by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent was based on a Sidney Carroll story.

Gambit gave Caine his first experience of working on a Hollywood film, with the picture shot at Universal Studios. Having been paid just £7000 for his role in The Ipcress File, Gambit pushed the actor’s price up to £50,000. Caine gave an interview to the Sunday Express during filming in February 1966, saying how much he liked Hollywood: ‘A lot of people knock this place, I know, but I don’t get it. There’s plenty to eat and the sun is shining and there are lots of birds. What more can you want? Oh, I miss things about London, of course. The theatre, for instance. But how much time can you spend in the theatre? What about the time you spend walking around trying to keep warm?’ During production Caine dated Hollywood star Natalie Wood and Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. The actor played up his Alfie (1966) persona: ‘They seem convinced that we English are just a bunch of Limey fags and I’m determined to change the image.’

Gambit was a hit with critics and audiences when it was released late in 1966. MacLaine, Caine and the film were all nominated for Golden Globes. Caine lost out to Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966). Gambit was also nominated for three technical awards – costumes, art direction and sound - at the Oscars. It was nearly quarter of a century before the film was released on video in the UK and US, finally emerging with a U rating in 2000. No DVD version is currently available.

In January 2002 Variety reported that brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were getting a seven-figure deal to script a remake of Gambit. The makers of Fargo (1996) and Blood Simple (1984) were commissioned by producer Michael Lobell to write the script as a potential star vehicle for British actor Hugh Grant. In November 2002 Variety reported director Burr Steers was attached to the project and would be rewriting the Coens’ script. Steers had won critical acclaim for his work on the feature Igby Goes Down (2002). ‘It [Gambit] is a wickedly funny piece that is ready to go,’ Steers said. ‘I’ll do a rewrite, but I’m working from a script by the Coens that makes you laugh out loud. It’s a great mix of updated screwball comedy and sophisticated slapstick. The trick will be to find a cast with the chemistry that Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine had in the original.’

Reviews: ‘Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine star in a first-rate suspense comedy, cleverly scripted, expertly directed and handsomely mounted.’ – Variety
‘The film has an originality of its own in the way that reality keeps asserting itself to shatter Harry’s illusions about his perfectly planned crime.’ – MFB

Verdict: Gambit is a lightweight crime caper that delights from start to finish. A clever opening sets out the masterplan for the theft. Then comes a twist where reality intrudes on Harry’s fantasy of a perfect crime, generating humour and suspense. The relationship between the two leads develops into a true partnership, with MacLaine and Caine sparking off each other well. Neame directs with verve and panache, despite the obviously studio-bound setting. Gambit is not a renowned film from Caine’s long career, but it’s one of his most enjoyable.

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