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Released in 1968, Hot Millions reassured filmgoers that the genre of English caper comedy was still very much in vogue. Offering a mischievous take on the man versus machine conflict, Hot Millions stars Peter Ustinov as Marcus Pendleton, an embezzler busted by computers and sent to prison. Upon his release, Pendleton is determined to harness computer technology to his financial advantage and sets upon his next con: reconfiguring the systems at his new company to issue checks to bogus entities, allowing Pendleton to collect the cash. Throw into the mix a ditzy Cockney secretary, a moth-loving computer genius, and an antagonist named Willard C. Gnatpole, and the fun begins.
Ustinov actually co-authored the script, which was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Original Screenplay. Hot Millions was originally angled to be an American comedy, but reshaped by Ustinov to be distinctly English. Ustinov, with a prolific career as a film and stage director, playwright, author, and screenwriter gained acclaim and Best Supporting Actor Oscars for his acting roles in Spartacus (1960), and Topkapi (1964). He is perhaps best remembered as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978), a role he would reprise five times.
Ustinov was also largely responsible for the casting of Hot Millions, which undoubtedly contributed to its success. Maggie Smith stars as Patty Terwilliger, the spacey but delightful love interest. Smith, who would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar the next year for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, taps into her talent as a comedienne in this film, further establishing her versatile acting capabilities. The role was originally slated for Lynn Redgrave, but due to a delayed production schedule, Redgrave was too heavily pregnant to continue the project, and Smith was cast as a replacement. Smith and Ustinov, noted for their onscreen chemistry during the filming, would appear together again in Death on the Nile ten years later. They would also share honors in 1990 from the Order of the British Empire in which Ustinov was knighted and Smith made Dame Commander.
Karl Malden was cast as Carlton J. Klemper, head of Ta Can Co, the company Pendleton is currently swindling. Malden is known for his heavyweight performances in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Baby Doll (1956); his intense dramatic ability earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Streetcar in 1951. Malden was recommended for the part in Hot Millions by Ustinov, allowing the method actor to try his hand at comedy. Ustinov is also credited with the casting of Bob Newhart as Gnatpole, Klemper's suspicious right-hand man, giving the actor his first major break into film. Newhart's greatest success, however, was in the medium of television; his two shows The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, would span almost a decade.
Even the cameo performances in Hot Millions are noteworthy: veteran screen actor Robert Morley turns in a performance as Caesar Smith, the computer whiz with an obsession for moths. Caesar Romero, the "Latin lover" actor turned television star as the Joker in the TV series, Batman, adds levity as a Brazilian customs official. Via its talented cast and their contributions, Hot Millions is elevated above a mere slapstick comedy and emerges as one of the classic examples of sixties British film comedy.
Producer:Mildred Freed Alberg
Screenplay:Ira Wallach, Peter Ustinov
Music:Don Black, Laurie Johnson
Art Direction:William C. Andrews
Principle Cast:Peter Ustinov (Marcus Pendleton, alias Caesar Smith), Maggie Smith (Patty Terwilliger), Karl Malden (Carlton Klemper), Bob Newhart (Willard C. Gnatpole), Robert Morley (Caesar Smith), Cesar Romero (Customs Inspector)
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by Eleanor Quin
Hot Millions (1968)
In 1968, Peter Ustinov reached back into the past to create a film more than 20 years ahead of its time. His goal in making Hot Millions was to re-capture the whimsical charm of the classic British comedies of the '40s and '50s, such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), both of which starred Alec Guinness. But Hot Millions is also prophetic in its depiction of a situation that would become a reality decades later -- an embezzler is put out of business by the dawn of the computer age. He ultimately strikes back by engineering an elaborate heist via the new modern technology.
The idea was first developed by television producer Mildred Freed Alberg,who would make her big-screen producing debut with the picture. She turnedit over to screenwriter Ira Wallach, whose previous films included TheWheeler Dealers (1963) and Don't Make Waves (1967), both of which dealt withminor con artists. When Ustinov came on board as a writer, he re-shaped theproject, honing the characters' eccentricities in the spirit of the classicBritish film comedies. They then hired director Eric Till, an Englishmanwho had started out directing Canadian television series like The Forest Rangers (1964).
Most of the casting was done by Ustinov, who also played the male lead. Hesuggested going with Karl Malden, better known for straight dramatic roles,as the villainous business magnate and casting comedian Bob Newhart, in hisfirst major screen role, as the corporate gadfly who dogs Ustinov's stepsthroughout the caper.
Ustinov's smartest move, however, was casting Maggie Smith as the ineptsecretary who becomes his character's love interest. She wasn't the firstchoice. Originally, he wanted Lynn Redgrave, hot off the success ofGeorgy Girl, the 1966 film that made her an international star.Pregnancy forced her to drop out of the film, opening the door for Smith.Ironically, Smith was just getting back to work after the birth of herfirst child, Christopher Stephens, who would appear briefly in the film.Known to filmgoers primarily for finely etched supporting performances insuch films as The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Smith'sfacility with a wide range of comic styles, from slapstick to romanticcomedy, proved a revelation to critics and audiences. Ustinov would hailher as the most sensitive actress he had ever worked with, and throughoutthe shoot threw extra bits and lines her way to turn the role into a comicshowcase.
Another highlight of the production for Ustinov was the chance to conduct asymphony orchestra on screen as his character lives out his fondest dreams.Ustinov himself had always been fascinated with conducting and spent hoursconducting his collection of classical recordings with a baton friends hadgiven him one Christmas. The orchestra performed live for the filming,following his leadership precisely. After the first take, he told Till,"I've never done that before -- what power!" (Quoted in Ustinov inFocus.)
Hot Millions won solid reviews and brought Ustinov and WallachOscar®: and Writers Guild Award nominations for their screenplay.It also helped launch Smith's and Newhart's film careers, but it was generally overlooked by the ticket-buying public who didn't realize what they were missing. Over the years, however, Hot Millions has acquired a cult following among those who like their comedies with ahealthy dose of wit and quirky charm.
Producer: Mildred Freed Alberg
Director: Eric Till
Screenplay: Ira Wallach and Peter Ustinov
Cinematography: Ken Higgins
Art Direction: Bill Andrews
Music: Laurie Johnson
Principal Cast: Peter Ustinov (Marcus Pendleton), Maggie Smith (PattyTerwilliger), Karl Malden (Carlton J. Klemper), Bob Newhart (Willard C.Gnatpole), Robert Morley (Caesar Smith), Cesar Romero (Customs Inspector).
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by Frank Miller