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How to Steal a Million (1966) is a completely improbable and utterly charming romantic caper shot on location in Paris. It benefits from William Wyler's inspired direction and a cast that includes Audrey Hepburn as Natalie Bonnet, the straight-laced daughter of a skilled art forger. When her father (Hugh Griffith) lends a phony reproduction of the 'Cellini Venus' statue to the Paris Museum his ego-driven gesture unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that could land him in jail. Natalie attempts to save the day by employing an art thief named Simon Dermott (Peter O'Toole) to help her steal the statue before the museum discovers that it's a fake but unbeknownst to her, Dermott is actually a detective specializing in art forgery who's eager to put Natalie's father behind bars. Following various mishaps and amusing encounters, romance eventually blossoms between Natalie and Simon when they become confined in a closet together while trying to avoid the museum guards during the heist.
The plot of How to Steal a Million is so preposterous that director William Wyler knew he'd have to dazzle audiences if he wanted to hold their attention and that's exactly what he did. After convincing 20th Century Fox executives to let him make the film in Paris, Wyler hired cinematographer Charles Lang and multi-talented production designer Alexandre Trauner to create lush sets at the Studios de Boulogne where many of the interiors were shot. Local artists were employed to paint the art forgeries seen in the film that were hung in antique frames to make them appear more authentic. And the fashion forward thinking designer Hubert de Givenchy was brought in to design Audrey Hepburn's extensive wardrobe. Givenchy had designed costumes for many of Hepburn's most popular films including Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and Charade (1963) but How to Steal a Million would be particularly challenging because it demanded multiple costume changes and an entirely new look for Hepburn. The popular actress had her long locks cut short for the role and makeup artists applied Cleopatra-style eyeliner to accentuate her doe-like eyes. Hepburn's mod makeover was dramatic and surprised many of her fans and critics but she looks positively stunning in How to Steal a Million. This breezy romp through the City of Lights may not be William Wyler's most critically applauded film but it has inspired countless fashionistas and designers who appreciate the visual pizzazz of the stylish production.
Hepburn had appeared in two of Wyler's earlier films, Roman Holiday (1953) and The Children's Hour (1961). During that time the actress and director developed a dynamic working relationship that benefited them both. Wyler agreed to team up his star with young Peter O'Toole after producer Fred Kohlmar recommended him. This was a wise decision because Hepburn and O'Toole quickly became friends during filming and ended up having great chemistry on screen. The two actors enjoyed making each other laugh at inappropriate times, which occasionally interfered with filming but Wyler didn't seem to mind the distraction and he found Peter O'Toole a complete joy to work with. O'Toole had a reputation for heavy drinking and liked to spend his evenings in Paris jazz clubs but he would always arrive at the set on time and knew all his lines. The same can't be said of his costars. George C. Scott was supposed to appear in How to Steal a Million as a brash American art collector who attempts to woo Hepburn's character but Wyler asked to have Scott fired when he didn't show up for his first day of filming. Apparently Scott had partied a little too much in Paris nightclubs the night before and couldn't overcome his hangover. He was quickly replaced by Eli Wallach who, along with actor Charles Boyer, aren't given much to do in the film but still manage to make an impression.
When How to Steal a Million was released in 1966 it was met with mixed reviews. In some ways the frivolous nature and glorified glamour of Wyler's film seemed completely out of touch with the times. But it also offered audiences a welcome escape from the Vietnam War, civil unrest and the cultural upheaval that the world was facing. The film did relatively well at the box office and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) nominated screenwriter Harry Kurnitz for a Best Written Comedy award but critics were less enthusiastic. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film "preposterous" but he also added "Cheers all around for everybody--for Miss Hepburn, Mr. O'Toole, Mr. Griffith, Eli Wallach, as a wealthy American collector of art, and for the scriptwriter, Harry Kurnitz (who is known fondly as Harry Koverr) and especially for, William Wyler, who directed with humor and style." While the Variety staff said "advantageous use is made of the actual story locale to give unusual visual interest." Richard Schickel writing for Life magazine wasn't as kind and attacked the film for being "just another distressingly typical 'big' comedy of our times, over dressed and underfunny." Schickel was particularly critical of the way Wyler and Kurnitz used Audrey Hepburn saying, "Here they have her repeat her characterization of the jeune fille undergoing a romantic awakening, a role in which she is now expert to the point of ennui--a kind of upper-class Debbie Reynolds." And in Pauline Kael's review for The New Yorker she said the film featured "An expensive cast in an anemic suspense comedy-romance" finishing with "The picture isn't offensive, and it's handsome enough, but it's just blah." Today audiences might find it easier to appreciate the movie's lighthearted look at deceit and mistaken identity taking place under the glittering shadow of the Paris art world.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler by Jan Herman