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Gambit

Gambit(1966)

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teaser Gambit (1966)

Small time crooks Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and his pal, Emile (John Abbott), concoct a daring scheme: to steal a priceless Chinese sculpture from Arab multimillionaire Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). To accomplish this, Harry and Emile recruit Nicole (Shirley MacLaine), a Eurasian woman working in a Hong Kong nightclub, who bears an amazing likeness to Shahbandar's late wife. Posing as man and wife, Harry and Nicole (clothed and made up to resemble the Arab's deceased wife) visit Shahbandar's city where their arrival is followed with great interest by the reclusive art collector. Following a carefully worked out time schedule, Harry and Nicole eventually succeed in being invited to tea at Shahbandar's fortress-like home where Harry sets in motion his planned heist of the Chinese bust.

Within the specialized genre of the "heist film," there are vast differences in tone and execution from one movie to the next that can range from dark (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) to lighthearted (Topkapi, 1964). Of the latter category, Gambit (1966) is easily one of the more entertaining examples and it opened at a time when Michael Caine's popularity as a leading man was just starting to peak. Shirley MacLaine, in her autobiography, My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir takes the credit for his American film debut, stating, "Michael Caine was a cockney actor; I had liked him in The Ipcress File [1965]. He tickled me with his dry, sardonic wit, and I asked him if he'd come to America and star with me in Gambit. He came all right and cut a swath through the single girls in Hollywood like a rocket with no resistance. He'd report for work after a hard night's play, stagger into his trailer, blast his Beatles records up to hyperspace, and try to get some sleep." Still, he found time to give an amusing performance as a smugly superior con-artist surpassed by his more intuitive female accomplice.

In his own autobiography, What's It All About?, Caine recalls his first impressions of MacLaine: "Although she had chosen me for the film role, we had still never met and to fix this she gave me a welcome party. I remember it was held in a big hotel ballroom somewhere. I arrived early, and when we were introduced, I was immediately enchanted by her; she made me feel instantly at home and welcome in this strange environment." The actor quickly adapted to the Hollywood fast-lane lifestyle, stating that "Gambit was proceeding so smoothly that it became secondary to the incredible social life I was leading. Ronald Neame, the director, was an expert at this sort of light frothy comedy, Shirley and I worked harmoniously together and Herbert Lom, who was the other star of the movie, was an expert and a sweetheart - so there was never a problem, apart from the fact that the movie was being shot in the Valley, which was notorious for its smog. Sometimes it was so thick you could not see a hundred yards in front of you, and it stung the eyes."

Not all of Gambit was filmed in Hollywood though and there is some exotic location footage of Hong Kong featured in the first half of the film. The movie also opens with an elaborately staged heist (as imagined by Michael Caine) that is a playful twist on the climactic final act of most crime caper films. The fun comes in watching how the actual theft of the Chinese sculpture plays out in a totally unexpected way from the original plan. Audiences and critics alike were charmed by Gambit and it went on to garner three Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Sound.

Producer: Leo Fuchs
Director: Ronald Neame
Screenplay: Jack Davies, Alvin Sargent
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, George C. Webb
Cinematography: Clifford Stine
Editing: Alma Macrorie
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Nicole Chang), Michael Caine (Harold "Harry" Dean), Herbert Lom (Ahmad Shahbandar), Roger C. Carmel (Ram), Arnold Moss (Abdul).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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