Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run through and reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying that still can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

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Starring a cast including Peter Sellers, Elke Sommers, Herbert Lom, and George Sanders, this comedy-mystery opens with several bustling individuals in a mansion, followed by a gunshot. A pretty maid who was found with the gun is assumed to be guilty, but the bumbling Inspector Clouseau thinks otherwise. He has run ins with his crazy boss, his man servant Kato, and the police, while he clumsily tires to solve the case. Everything seems to point to Maria after more murders. However, Clouseau spends time with her and it becomes evident to us that a black-gloved man is after him. In the melodramatic, chaotic final scene, Clouseau attempts to name the murderer, and the case is solved, no thanks to him. This second installment of the Pink Panther had some funny moments and the slapstick was very good.

4/5 Stars

The Lady Killers (1955)

c0838-the_ladykillers_posterStarring Alec Guinness, this is a unique and often hilarious black comedy caper film by the Ealing Studios. The adventure begins with the quirky criminal mastermind, Guinness, renting a room from an old woman. Soon his masquerading accomplices arrive. The five of them plan to commit a robbery and when the day comes things start off smoothly. However, they have the unknowing old woman pick up their prize and chaos follows her. The men get the money but before they can escape the lady accidentally finds out. The latter half of the film follows the double crossing antics of the criminals as they try to run off with the money while trying to figure out who will do the unpleasant job of knocking off the lady. Needless to say they don’t succeed. I was wary of this movie at first but it was actually very enjoyable because of the comedic and odd scenario. Keep your eyes on a young Peter Sellers as well as Herbert Lom.

4.5/5 Stars