Gambit has a lot of fun with that simple genre premise.
An experienced thief who has managed to stay under the radar (those pesky police), Harry Dean (Michael Caine) has come up with a brilliantly unique plan that will net him quite the profit. He's going to rob the apartment of the supposed richest man in the world, Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), in Dammuz, a Middle Eastern city. His plan? He recruits Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), a dance hall girl trapped in Hong Kong without money or passport. Nicole bears a striking resemblance to Shahbandar's wife who died some 20 years ago. Harry assumes that if the richest man in the world even sees Nicole, he'll be dumbstruck. So, soooo, while Shahbandar is distracted with Nicole -- posing as Harry's wife -- Harry intends to get into his heavily guarded, fortified with security apartment. He's got it all planned down to the miniscule details....and nothing seems like it can go as planned.
Not gonna lie, about 25 minutes into this comedy heist film from director Ronald Neame, I was ridiculously close to bailing. Why you ask? SPOILERS STOP READING FOR FIRST 30 MINUTE SPOILERS Well, the entire first half four of the story is a what-if. We don't know it at the time, but just the same, that's what it is. What we see is how Harry envisions his plan coming together. Every little thing comes together perfectly, no flubs or screw-ups, just a plan developing like a well-oiled machine. I did get a kick out of it that MacLaine's Nicole says absolutely NOTHING over the opener, Harry's plan ideally having her silent. I don't know why, but that premise cracked me up. Still, while it's clever, I also felt it was quite a gimmick, like a wasted half hour I wouldn't be getting back anytime soon. Thankfully in this case, I was wrong. Yes, it's a gimmick, but because of what came after it, that darn gimmick worked well.
Considering the stars involved, I was surprised I'd never heard of this heist comedy. It is funny, never going into Spoof or Stupid Territory, keeping the laughs low-key and pretty natural without too much forced. 'Gambit' is hard to peg, but it's enjoyable throughout its 109-minute running time. The biggest reason is the gimmick's payoff. The what-if first 25 minutes is dull because, well, everything goes well. What's the fun in seeing everything work out? It's all part of the set-up. We're then transported back to where Harry began, laying out his plan for the robbery. The last 90 minutes is excellent because we've already seen what Harry thinks (even expects) to happen. Seeing it go in almost the exact opposite way provides some great moments, the seemingly smooth Cockney thief unraveling with one miscue after another. MacLaine's Nicole -- now allowed to speak -- is sweet, charming and intelligent, correcting Harry ad nauseum. In those quiet, underplayed moments with genuine laughs, that's where 'Gambit' is at its absolute best.
All style choices aside, this flick's success rode on the shoulders of stars Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. An established star, MacLaine shows off her impeccable comedic timing with each passing scene. It's hard not to like her and more importantly, her character, Nicole, an Asian-American looking for an out of Hong Kong. It's odd to think of this, but this film was Caine's first American film after the British success of Zulu, The Ipcress File, Alfie and The Wrong Box. The part was an excellent introduction of sorts for American audiences, a smooth Brit who isn't so smooth under pressure. On their own, these are two really fun, entertaining characters, but together? There's a reason MacLaine and Caine are two of the best to ever grace the silver screen. Their chemistry is pitch-perfect, MacLaine's calm meets chipper demeanor vs. Caine's ultra-smooth, ultra-confident thief playing well off each other. Just sit back and watch two pros do their thing.
Beyond the star duo, the cast is pretty limited here. Lom rounds out the lead trio as Shahbandar, the target of Harry's brilliantly put together robbery. Not quite a villain, not quite a good guy, he's in between as he tries to figure out exactly what Harry and Nicole are up to. Who else to look for? Roger C. Carmel as Ram, the hotel attendant Harry is counting on, John Abbott as Emile, Harry's partner in crime, Arnold Moss as Abdul, Shahbandar's loyal assistant, and Richard Angarola as Salim, the police chief.
Lesson No. 2 from the Heist genre: There's always a twist. Does it always work? No. The ending here falls in between. It works, but it's not as smart as it probably thinks it is. The twist certainly does come out of left field and for the most part it all clicks together. Still, the fun is getting to the finale. If the bookends aren't the strongest aspects overall, so be it, because the middle portion is quite easy to recommend. Definitely worth checking out. Composer Maurice Jarre has some fun with his musical score, touching on a variety of different genres with his cues.
Gambit (1966): ***/****