I’m not sure if the caper movie could be referred to as a genre in itself. It’s basically an offshoot of the heist movie, which in turn has its origins in the world of thrillers. To me a caper should be a humorous take on a criminal enterprise and it should have a certain gloss or stylishness about it. As such, the 1960s were arguably the ideal period for these films, and I’m of the opinion that the best examples are to be found in that decade. Gambit (1966) checks all the boxes as far as I’m concerned: it’s got a couple of glamorous stars in the lead roles, a slightly convoluted plot that never takes itself too seriously, pretty locations, and an abundance of charm and style.
The structure of the film is one of its major assets, with the first half hour showing Harry Dean (Michael Caine) meticulously setting up the perfect crime before everything falls to pieces. Our hero has his sights on a priceless sculpture owned by a reclusive billionaire, Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), and has planned what he thinks is a foolproof method of snatching it. For the final pieces of his scheme to fall into place he needs a woman to play the part of his wife. Of course it can’t be just any woman, he needs someone who closely resembles Shahbandar’s late wife. Enter Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), an exotic dancer of Eurasian stock who just happens to be a ringer for the former Mrs Shahbandar. This is the leverage Harry hopes to use to get near enough to both the billionaire and his precious artifact. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen this, so I’ll stick to saying that the humour and suspense come not only from watching how the best laid plans come unstuck but how they can be pasted back together again.
Michael Caine had just done Alfie and The Ipcress File before this movie and had pretty much cornered the market for mouthy cockneys. It’s a lot of fun watching his Harry Dean go from the assured, smooth operator of the opening to the increasingly flustered and shouty blunderer of the rest of the film. Shirley MacLaine is probably even better as the would-be pawn who ends up bailing Harry out of a succession of uncomfortable situations. When one remembers that the actress doesn’t even open her mouth for the first half hour or so it just proves what a classy performer she is. Herbert Lom was another piece of great casting and always gave a memorable performance in every thing I’ve seen him in. He more or less plays two roles in this film and does so with the greatest of ease. Ronald Neame directed fluidly and kept the pace tight throughout. He also handled the combination of humour and suspense with a deft touch, maintaining a nice balance all the way. It’s also worth mentioning that this gentleman celebrated his 98th birthday last year since he’s one of the few remaining links to the golden age of cinema – here’s hoping he gets to celebrate many more.
Gambit is on DVD in the UK via Second Sight and they’ve done an excellent job on the presentation. The anamorphic scope transfer looks fantastic with strong, bright colours and a clean, sharp image. The disc has the added bonus of carrying a commentary track with the director, something I always appreciate on the rare occasion it’s available for older movies. This film is also now available in the US via Universal’s burn on demand programme – currently exclusive to Amazon. I have no idea how the editions stack up against each other but I will say that I managed to pick up my R2 on sale before Christmas for an absolute pittance. It remains to be seen whether the R1 counterpart will drop significantly in price. All told, I enjoyed the film enormously. It’s a delightful and fun piece right from the start, and I can’t say it disappoints on any level. The perfect tonic for those bleak evenings in the depths of winter – highly recommended.