Heist movies were insanely popular during the 1960s and Gambit is not only a fine example of the breed it also adds a few distinctive touches of its own.
In 1966 Shirley MacLaine was a very big star, big enough to be given the final choice of leading man for her films. In this instance Michael Caine turned out to be absolutely the ideal choice.
Caine plays Harry Dean, an English crook with very grandiose ambitions indeed. He has a plan, which he has no doubt is fool-proof, to rob the world’s richest man. Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) is an Arab oil billionaire with a fabulous art collection and Harry has set his sights on the most valuable of all Shahbandar’s artworks, a two thousand year old Chinese statue. The statue happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the billionaire’s deceased wife and Harry thinks he can make use of this. All he needs to do is to find a girl who looks like the statue. He finds her in the person of Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine,) a small-time Eurasian dancer in a seedy bar in Hong Kong.
The essential framework for the heist movie is that there has to be a superbly ingenious plan that cannot possibly fail but of course in practice it doesn’t go quite so smoothly. Gambit follows this formula but with a few original twists. Unfortunately even to hint at the nature of those twists would ruin part of the enjoyment of the film so I’ll say as little as possible about the plot.
Ronald Neame directed. Neame doesn’t always get the attention he deserves. He made some fascinating movies in just about every genre and he demonstrates a natural flair for the heist movie. Gambit was nominated for three Oscars including best Art Direction and Best Costumes. It does indeed look terrific and Shirley MacLaine’s dresses are fabulous. Despite the exotic settings it was shot entirely in California (mostly on the backlot), with Santa Barbara standing in for the Riviera.
While Harry is definitely a wrong ’un he’s a nice guy, and Shahbandar is a pretty nice guy as well. That makes the battle of wits between them rather interesting - we don’t really want either of them to lose. In fact we’d like to see all three of the main characters win.
Shirley MacLaine figures prominently in the action right from the start but for the first half hour she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. This was apparently her own idea and it’s a very good one (and one that the director embraced enthusiastically). To reveal why it’s such a good idea would be to risk a spoiler - one very intriguing feature of this movie is that the really clever plot twist comes at the beginning rather than the end.
This is the kind of light-hearted romp that movie-makers just don’t seem to have the style or the lightness of touch to pull off any more. In the 60s though they did know how to do this sort of thing, and do it supremely well. Gambit is witty, clever, stylish, romantic, amusing and exciting. It’s pure entertainment of the highest order. Highly recommended.