Thieves in the Night

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GAMBIT has just had a makeover via the Coen Bros (on screenwriting duties), who have an uneven track record with remakes. I liked TRUE GRIT a lot and thought THE LADYKILLERS sucked corpse.

We decided to check out the original, Ronald Neame at times being a rather charming filmmaker, the late Herbert Lom being always a worthy opponent, and 1966 being a very good year for both Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine.

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The beginning of the film seemed a little flat — the design and photography are elegant (gowns by Jean-Louis!) but the action seemed rote, the only suspense coming from wondering when Shirley would speak. Or emote. Twenty minutes pass.

And then the film reveals you’ve been suckered and the heist you just watched was merely a mental rehearsal of the plan. As soon as Caine starts interacting with reality, things depart from his meticulous plan. It’s an excellent writer’s joke: the first act = the first draft, lifeless and predictable, since only the protagonist is thinking and everybody else simply behaves as he expects and allows him to get what he wants. The comedy of the rest of the film results partly from Caine struggling to keep his cool (and his posh ZULU accent) as the world, and his attractive partner, throw him curve-balls at every turn.

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It’s not perfect — everybody seems to be ethnically disguised in brownface or yellowface, turning close-ups into a pointillist nightmare of clogged pores. But the charm of the players is overpowering, and the script is worked out to a tee, so that annoying niggles — Lom seems really too nice to rob, and Caine’s scheme seems too ruthlessly exploitative — all resolve in the end to complete satisfaction.

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8 Responses to “Thieves in the Night”

  1. Your entry here brought to mind a far-flung memory of Shirley in the film she made just before GAMBIT, called JOHN GOLDFARB PLEASE COME HOME. I remember seeing it as a boy, and although I don’t remember much, I do recall how smitten I was with Shirley in a harem girl outfit. Another politically incorrect farce from the Sixties- no shortage of those it seems- but I think it was here that was launched my lifelong attraction to women with freckles.

  2. I really love the part where Shirley MacLaine sits down in a fancy way. She’s very good with the furniture in this.

  3. Oh, that’s a pretty bad movie, Goldfarb (most William Peter Blatty-scripted comedies from the period are). The best gag is the harem towel rack: one “HIS” and a dozen “HERS” towels…

  4. Shirley trained as a dancer! She really gets to use it here, during the heist too.

  5. John Goldfarb Please Come Home sparked a minor “international incident” as it greatly offended our Arabian allies (go Google for all the skinny)

    I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mr.Neame a number of years back.. He said he had a lot of fun doing Gambit

  6. “Ronald Neame at times being a rather charming filmmaker”–one of those times being HOPSKOTCH, which has to be the lightest comedy ever made about defecting from the CIA, and one of Walter Matthau’s best roles. I believe it was honored with a Criterion release a few years ago.

  7. EDIT: I realize to my embarrassment that I misspelled the title with a “k” and that you wrote about the film back in 2008(http://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/01/21/quote-of-the-day-short-people/

  8. Not to worry! I agree it’s a charming film, and quite unexpected. I like the Donald Westlake homage in it too. I think Gambit is even better!

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