“You can’t tell the crooks from the good guys anymore” Nicole
****Contains quite a large spoiler for an early twist in the film****
Following on from his success in British made Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie Michael Caine made his first Hollywood movie with Gambit. His co-star Shirley MacLaine had seen Caine in The Ipcress File and by the terms of her contract was allowed to choose the male lead. The pair were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations for best actor and actress.
Gambit is a heist movie with an interesting structure. Caine plays Harry, a cat burglar with a plan to steal a valuable sculpture from a reclusive billionaire. In order to do this he has to recruit dancer Nicole, played by MacLaine as she bares a striking resemblance to the billionaire’s late wife and in turn the sculpture. The film opens as Harry identifies Nicole and puts his proposal to her. We then see the full heist in action as everything runs smoothly and the sculpture gained only to find that what we have seen is simply Harry explaining the plan to his friend and colleague Emile. In other films this might have taken up just a few minutes, but here we have a full half hour before we essentially jump straight back to the opening of the film with Harry about to approach Nicole. It’s a very brave choice and there are both positives and negatives to its use. On the one hand the pay off of how the plan plays out in Harry’s mind to the less than smooth reality is wonderful. The problem is that it means the first half hour fails to fully engage. Caine still gets bits to do and is very watchable, but MacLaine though on screen for much of the time doesn’t have a single line until the action bounces back to reality. Similarly Herbert Lom who plays billionaire Shahbandar has little of his usual charisma in the opening.
Fortunately when we return to real events the film becomes a huge amount of fun. Caine and MacLaine have wonderful chemistry together and produce a lovely comic partnership. Harry’s increasing exasperation as the reality of events doesn’t quite match his slick plan allows Caine to really shine. He plays short-tempered exasperation very well and this is the first time in his film performances so far that he really has that opportunity. Indeed there’s a moment when in growing frustration he yells at MacLaine “well it’s driving me round the bloody bend” that feels almost archetypal Caine. He switches effortlessly between the slick version of Harry in his plan recital to the deadpan slightly less professional version in reality while also maintaining a believability as a competent thief.
MacLaine is equally superb in her role once she is allowed to show some character. In the initial ‘fictional’ scenes she has nothing to do but play the sad, silent stooge. Dressed beautifully in oriental outfits she reminded me of Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die. As already mentioned those early scenes do help set up some of the humour of the later action, but it feels like a waste of MacLaine’s talents in particular. Thankfully when we see the reality of Nicole she has much more character and personality and she is the real driver of the movie. Just a couple of films on from Alfie and it’s portrayal of female characters Nicole comes as a breath of fresh air. She is a strong character who shows a wit and intelligence that often shows up Harry or helps get him out of trouble. MacLaine has a lovely gift for comedy and has some lovely lines here (“why is it that people who follow people always end up fingering trinkets?”). It’s a shame that she is required to do something silly and out of character towards the end to place her and Harry in jeopardy during the heist, but overall it’s a welcome strong female character beautifully played by an excellent actor.
Herbert Lom is also much improved in the second act as his natural charisma is allowed to play out. I’m a big fan of Lom and he was outstanding in Passport to Shame featured earlier in this blog. There’s a nice back and forth between him and Caine here as they both try to suss each other out and his enjoyment of playing the game comes across beautifully. His performance overcomes the slight issues with the skin tones he is given by the make-up team, which see him alternate between looking like he has been tangoed in the early stages to having just emerged from a coal mine in the latter.
After watching the first half hour of Gambit I felt it was going to be a difficult watch. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s a shame they didn’t find a way to make that opening a little more engaging as it’s a solid idea and would have made for a more complete film. In the end though the last hour and the performances of MacLaine and Caine make this well worth a watch.