Thursday, August 22, 2019

Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine Execute a Gambit

Shirley MacLaine as Nicole.
This review contains a spoiler. 

In  the first 29 minutes of Gambit (1966), we see art thief Harry Dean (Michael Caine) execute the perfect heist with the aid of dance hall girl Nicole (Shirley MacLaine) and his partner Emile (John Abbott). Of course, it turns out that the entire sequence is merely Harry describing his plan to Emile. When it comes time to actually pull off the robbery, almost nothing works out as Harry envisioned.

In Harry's plan, he and Nicole, disguised as a wealthy British businessman and his wife, are met at the airport by the hotel's limo. They are given the royal suite and invited by the hotel's reclusive owner to dinner in his rooms. Later, Harry steals the most valuable piece in the hotel owner's art collection.

Michael Caine as Harry.
When it comes to execute the caper for real, there is no limo (the hotel no longer sends one for VIP guests), they don't get their desired suite, and the hotel's owner--already suspicious of them--invites them to lunch on his yacht. Furthermore, Harry's target, an invaluable bust, is protected by a new electronic security system.

A playful caper film, Gambit has plenty of twists, so knowing the first one doesn't negate the enjoyment of the others. Still, it's the first twist--the 29 minute "planning" sequence--that the film is known for. It has fooled me both times I watched it (albeit my viewings were several decades apart). And there are plenty of clues that something is amiss during the sequence. First, Shirley MacLaine's character doesn't speak a word of dialogue, which struck me as peculiar. Secondly, it's apparent that Harry isn't a first-class thief, so it seems odd that everything goes so smoothly.

The most amusing part of Gambit is the role reversals between the plan and the execution. In Harry's plan, he is totally in charge and Nicole follows his every instruction. During the execution, Nicole's quick thinking and knowledge of art saves Harry and his plan on multiple occasions.

Herbert Lom as Shahbandar.
Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine are a delightful duo. It's a shame that this was their only movie together (other than a few scenes in the anthology Woman Times Seven). However, the unheralded star of Gambit is Herbert Lom, who plays the reclusive art collector. Lom was a highly versatile performer, appearing in horror films (The Phantom of the Opera), historical epics (Spartacus), and comedies (A Shot in the Dark). His surprising flair for physical comedy resulted in his best-known work, as Peter Sellers' nemesis, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, in the best Pink Panther films.

On of Nicole's gowns.
Gambit was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Set Design, Best Costumes and Best Sounds. The film, Shirley MacLaine, and Michael Caine were all nominated for Golden Globes. MacLaine lost to Lynn Redgrave for Georgy Girl while Alan Arkin nabbed Best Actor in a Comedy with The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

The screenplay for Gambit was based on a story by Sidney Carroll, who penned scripts for The Hustler and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (which also features a famous twist). The Coen Brothers adapted Carroll's story for a 2012 version of Gambit starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman.


  1. I like that Neame, Davies and Sargent took the time to open the movie like that. It works. But I don't think a modern filmmaker would dare to spend so long on that type of sequence. Then again, the producers of TV's "Dallas" made the entire series run a dream, so I guess it depends on the execution of the concept.

    One thing I like about your reviews, Rick, is that you drop tidbits of other movies along the way, and awaken dormant memories for me. "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" was a film I enjoyed watching years ago and had completely forgotten about until now. It's part of a mix of "small" films from the same time period that if nothing else were enjoyable to watch -- the other two being "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round" and "No Way to Treat a Lady."

    1. All three of the movies you mention, Ron, are ones that I wind up watching to the end whenever they're on TV (which is not very often)!

  2. I've only seen Gambit once, but was so tickled with the entire thing that I won't pass by the chance to see it again.

    I had no idea it had been reworked. I have got to start paying attention to what's going on around me or I'll just wait for you to fill me in.

  3. In his memoirs, Michael Caine writes affectionately about his time on this film and his work with Shirley MacLaine. Like you said, it's too bad they only made the one film together.

  4. Ah, Gambit! This is a family favorite in my house. I agree that Caine and MacLaine made a great team and it would have been nice to see them in another comedy ( perhaps one in the vein of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ). The remake was most remakes tend to be.

  5. “Gambit” reminds me of the saying “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” I think Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are quite fun together. Twenty-two years later Caine would deceive and entertain us again in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”