Classic Film Review: Audrey and O’Toole teach us “How to Steal a Million” (1966)

The great gamine, fashion icon, UNICEF ambassador and oh-by-the-way, film star Audrey Hepburn never worked with Alfred Hitchcock. Not blonde enough, I guess.

But she came close, flirting with Hitchcockian thrillers in “Wait Until Dark,” flirting with Cary Grant in a murderous comic thriller “Charade,” and carrying on with Peter O’Toole in the Paris of Earthly delights caper comedy “How to Steal a Million.”

The first joke that works in this William Wyler mid-60s wonder has Hepburn, in bed reading a paperback biography of “Hitchcock,” a sly dig that notes that while she never worked with “The Master of Suspense,” she did work with Wyler (“Ben Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Big Country”), one of the great directors of his era, and not just once.

Together, they’d made Gregory Peck light and charming in “Roman Holiday,” and here, they reunite late in Wyler’s career to make a straight-up caper comedy/romance. “How to Steal a Million” is both adorably old-fashioned and a not-quite “swinging ’60s” time capsule that puts mid-60s Paris, fashion, wit and style under glass for future generations to marvel over.

Caper comedies were all the rage after “The Pink Panther,” and as Peter O’Toole had shown that he could be light and funny in the generally unfunny “What’s New Pussycat?” why not pair him with Hepburn and see what sparks they set off?

She’s Nicole Bonnet, the well-turned-out daughter of an art forger, played by the jolly character actor Hugh Griffith (“Start the Revolution Without Me” might have been his finest hour, but he was a larger-than-life Arab chieftain and horse lover in Wyler’s “Ben-Hur”). O’Toole is a thief she interrupts while stealing one of her father’s (fake) Van Goghs. She accidentally shoots him with one of her father’s antique (flintlock) dueling pistols.

“Well, it was pitch dark and there he was…Tall, blue eyes, slim, quite good-looking… in a brutal, mean way, Papa. A terrible man!”

She drives this “wounded” fellow, who goes by Simon Dermott, home to the Ritz in his “stolen” Jaguar — “I can’t drive a STOLEN car!” “Same principle, four gears forward, one reverse.” Eventually, when she realizes her father is about to be exposed as a forger, Nicole commissions the dashing Brit to help her steal a forgery from an ever-so-secure Paris museum to spare Papa from Prison.

 “Why must it be this particular work of art?”

“You don’t think I’d steal something that didn’t belong to me, do you?”

 “Excuse me, I spoke without thinking.”

The banter just sparkles here, and Wyler — not known for comedy — keeps it coming and keeps it coming at a sprint. The costume-designer turned screenwriter, Harry Kurnitz, wrote “Hatari,” the reincarnation comedy “Goodbye, Charlie” and the stage play which Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty turned into “A Shot in the Dark.” He knew enough about comedy for the both of them, and Wyler had the good sense to do what he did best — get great takes and turn them into great performances, giving us a couple with crackling chemistry evident in all the antics they get up to trying to “steal a million.”

Eli Wallach plays a boorish American millionaire new to art collecting, hellbent on buying Papa’s forgeries and determined to have Nicole for his very own.

“Made up my mind. Man of action! Snap judgment. I bought a fleet of tankers that way once. One of the best deals I ever made.”

“But I’m not a fleet of tankers and I’m not getting engaged to a man I barely know.”

“Well, you’ll get to know me. Look me up in Who’s Who, Dun & Bradstreet!”

It’s so dated as to make you wince in a “#TimesUp” way.

Other complications include Simon’s secret agenda (that plummy-voiced “Gaslighter” Charles Boyer figures into the story), and the great French actor Marcel Dalio (“The Rules of the Game”) who fled to Hollywood to a lesser career in character roles (he was the croupier in “Casablanca”) turns up as an art-loving Spaniard.

There are infrared sensors (a new thing) to be foiled, art auctions to visit, nightlife and cafe society to be sampled and Chanel fashions and instant classic cars to be ogled.

And it’s all so light on its feet. Sure, it’s slight and entirely too long. But rarely have two rom-com hours skipped by as merrily as this, a comedy that’s what “we” mean when we say “They don’t make’em like this any more.”

Rating: “approved” (PG, a shooting)

Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Hugh Griffith, Eli Wallach, Marcel Dalio and Charles Boyer

Credits: Directed by William Wyler, scripted by Harry Kurnitz. A 20th Century (Fox) release, now on Amazon, Tubi, Movies! etc.

Running time: 2:03

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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