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.
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.
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.