Sunday, April 30, 2017

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1966) Twilight Time

Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to begin any movie review with gushing praise. After all, where is the incentive for reading beyond the byline? But I cannot help it. I absolutely adore the movies of William Wyler; an extension of my admiration for the man himself. The word ‘artist’ gets bandied about so often these days it has all but lost its potency as a signifier of ‘genius’. But Wyler was quite simply that; intuitive and methodical, exacting, yet precise, earning him the nickname ‘40-take Wyler.’ Yet, for all his magnitude as an artiste, Wyler’s methods for achieving such diverse cinematic greatness often left his actors nonplussed; Wyler, intensely focused behind the camera, listening with pricked ears, only to mutter “again” or “it stinks!” as the voice of…ahem…‘encouragement’. Even so, actors never resented him. “The only answer I have,” Charlton Heston once speculated, “…is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it. Your faith in his taste and what it will do for your performance is what makes casting a Wyler picture a cinch...doing a film for Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You darn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose.” Chuck likely knew of whence he spoke, having taken home the little gold bald guy for his titanic performance in Wyler’s multi-Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959).
Now, personally, I put very little weight in the annual Oscar horse race. Too many great talents have never been honored. Nevertheless, over the course of his illustrious career, Wyler was bestowed the accolade of twelve nominations for direction, thirteen for Best Picture. Fourteen actors have won Academy Awards under his direction; a record perhaps only rivaled by Wyler’s ambition to always reinvent and challenge himself, making at least one movie in virtually every genre except ‘horror’, while keeping the core values of his film-making technique close at hand. As Wyler, who by 1966, the year he made the erudite romantic caper/comedy, How To Steal a Million was entering the emeritus years of a long and industrious career, could look back upon his Hollywood tenure with rose-colored glasses; a potpourri as richly varied as it was soon to reap universal praise from both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Film Institute. Yet, there was little about Wyler’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1923 to suggest he would become renowned for box office-bankable literary adaptations and wartime melodramas of the highest order.
Indeed, hired by Universal Studios, basically as a grunt, Wyler was fired for frequently cutting out to play pool and organizing poker games on the company’s time. Yet, Wyler’s 3 Oscar wins as Best Director of three as noteworthy Best Pictures (Mrs. Miniver, 1943, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, and the aforementioned Ben-Hur, 1959) still holds a record. Hence, by the time Wyler settled in to shoot How To Steal a Million, he had lived and learned a lot about his technique and people; his volatile affair with Bette Davis – the leading lady whom he coached and coaxed through three of her most memorable outings (Jezebel, 1938; The Letter, 1940 and, The Little Foxes, 1941) leaving no lasting scars or bitter remorse for his admiration of the star. “It was all Wyler,” Davis would later offer, “I had known all the horrors of no direction and bad direction. I now knew what a great director was,” she reflected in 1971, “…and what he could mean to an actress. I will always be grateful to him for his toughness and his genius.” Almost miraculously, Wyler remained humble and circumspect about his own contribution to making movies. “It’s eighty percent script,” he once explained, “…and twenty percent great actors. There’s nothing else to it!”
How to Steal a Million stars another Wyler favorite; Audrey Hepburn, who had already won her Oscar in another Wyler masterpiece, Roman Holiday (1950). And although Hepburn is as always, rather luminous in ‘Million’, there is little here to suggest she is on her way to another Academy Award for this performance. Even so, Audrey positively glows as Nicole Bonnet; a winsome and fashion-savvy ingénue, immaculately tricked out in stunning sixties mod-chic haute couture, exclusively designed for her by Hubert de Givenchy. In retrospect, How To Steal a Million is deceptively featherweight; a candied bon-bon of the romantic comedy with the great Peter O’Toole (as Simon Dermott) trading his usual severity for being ‘a serious actor’, instead taking a rather handsome and jaunty spree as the amiable romantic fop, increasingly in love with the daughter of a fraudulent art dealer (played with jovial aplomb by Hugh Griffith).  Wyler’s pacing throughout How To Steal a Million is palliated to downright glacial, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, owing to the sublime chemistry between his two stars, who first ‘meet cute’ under the cover of night; she, in a sexy slip, after being spooked from reading Hitchcock’s bio and he, in a tuxedo no less, about to steal a paint sample for analysis from one of her father’s forged Van Goghs hanging in the parlor; Wyler gets precisely the uber-elegance and poise he wants and needs to concoct his class ‘A’ sexy screwball.       
Based on a story idea by George Bradshaw, Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay is an exercise in urbanity; the wry witticisms laid end to end that, in Hepburn and O’Toole’s competent care and diction, fairly ooze highborn sex appeal. Told by Hepburn’s Nicole, after she has already inflicted a flesh wound with one of her father’s vintage pistols, that he is not very brave, O’Toole’s Simon quips, “I’m a society burglar. I don’t expect people to rush about shooting at me. Besides…I’m the one who’s bleeding.” Atypical of the screwball, Nicole gives as good as she gets, the stichomythic badinage, delicious, enthralling, and quite simply, fun for a listen. As when asked by Simon to ‘take off her clothes’ in readiness for their grand caper, she smirks, inquisitively, adding, “Are we planning the same sort of crime?”; he, even more smarmily bats back with an in-joke, “You’re quite safe. It’s dress rehearsal time. That’s why we bought all this lovely junk…for one thing…it gives Givenchy the night off.” Adding that her scrub-lady’s attire makes her feel positively sixteenth century, Simon’s smug inquiry, “Where were you precisely in the sixteenth century?” and, with sassy charm, Nicole replies, “I don’t know, but that’s not how I was dressed!”
I have read quite a few reviews suggesting Wyler takes too long to ‘get to the point’ of his story; critics, I think, utterly missing the point of the story, devoted to slick, sly and subversive banter, the crime – or rather, ‘crimes’ – incidental to out-and-out unimportant to the plot; an implausibly good-natured, elegantly tailored grand amour between a cordial cad and enterprising Parisian socialite, far less innocent than she pretends.  Neither O’Toole nor Hepburn overplays their hand; the result, spectacularly evasive repartee to whet both theirs and the audiences’ palette for sensual love-making of the old school Hollywood ilk, where passions – oft unrequited – occasionally are allowed only a smolder before the camera pans to the grate of a raging fireplace. Wyler does, in fact, hail from this not altogether distant epoch, but realizes he cannot hold tight to its vestiges of good taste in the swingin’ sixties. In lieu of ‘go for the crotch’ flashes of skin, Wyler instead has O’Toole and Hepburn play up their intentions in a sort of saucy spank; each clobbering the other with hot-to-trot one-upsmanship in eruditeness.  
Immediately following the picture’s main title sequence, showcasing Wyler’s love of framed art, set to John Williams’ ebullient score – itself all playful and full of bounce – we digress to a fashionable auction house in Paris where art collector, Charles Bonnet is auctioning off his perfect knock-off of a Paul Cézanne to unsuspecting wealthy patrons. The portrait fetches a cool half million, its announcement on the radio causing Bonnet’s daughter, Nicole to hurry home in her expensive candy-apple red Autobianchi Bianchina Special Cabriolet. She chastises dad for his chutzpah. After all, forgery is a crime. The stakes are much too high. Momentarily, the wisdom of Nicole’s logic appears to bear itself out; a small police brigade descending on their villa. But no – the gendarmes have not come for Charles; rather, to escort a loan-out of his beloved Cellini Venus to the Kléber-Lafayette Museum in Paris where; the planned centerpiece of an important new exhibition.  One problem: like all other ‘masterpieces’ in the family’s possession the Cellini too is a fake, forged in 1908 by Nicole's grandfather, who used her grandmother as his muse and model. Nevertheless, the Cellini would easily fail even the most basic forensic test to establish the date of its materials and creation. Charles has no fear – and, no shame, as it were. After all, no such tests are forthcoming by the gallery’s curator, Monsieur Grammont (Fernand Gravey), who treats the statuette with an absurd amount of caution and reverence.
Prior to the exchange of the Cellini, Charles was laboring over a newly forged Van Gogh, presently hanging in his living room. Now, as he attends the museum’s triumphant premiere of his Cellini, a dark and shadowy figure is making its way to his seemingly unprotected villa. Nicole, who has elected to remain cozied up to a Hitchcock bio in lieu of attending the spectacle, hears a noise. Dislodging one of her father’s vintage pistols from its wall mount, she tiptoes downstairs, and, at the most opportune moment holds the would-be thief of the Van Gogh at bay. The man, Simon Dermott, feigns innocence, claiming simply to have been enamored with a glimpse of the painting he replaces back on the wall as Nicole looks on. To avoid a police investigation of her father’s fake masterpieces Nicole suggests she will let Simon off ‘this time’, but unexpectedly, the gun in her hand goes off, wounding him in the arm. It is a superficial graze. Nevertheless, after momentarily fainting at the sight of his blood, Nicole dutifully cleans the wound in the kitchen with a bottle of peroxide; then, under duress, agrees to drive Simon back to the Ritz in his equally as sport, lemon yellow Jaguar E-Type; hardly an inconspicuous mode of transportation for the common thief. Asked to explain it, Simon merely suggests like everything else, the car is stolen. “I can’t drive a stolen car!” Nicole exclaims, to which Simon casually explains, “Same principle, four gears forward, one reverse.”
In the courtyard of the Ritz, Simon takes even more liberties, planting a fairly passionate kiss on Nicole’s lips before ushering her into a taxi. As luck would have it, Simon is hardly a thief – common or otherwise, but actually a private investigator hired for insurance purposes by DeSolnay (Charles Boyer). Meanwhile, Nicole informs Charles not only of the foiled crime, but also she presently has a date with American tycoon, Davis Leland (Eli Wallach). Unaware of Leland’s maniacal obsession to own the Venus statuette, Nicole nevertheless becomes highly suspicious of her beaux. However, after Leland confides the real reason for their dinner engagement, Nicole is not only relieved, but rather casual about fluffing him off. The Cellini is not for sale. Of course, this only amplifies more Leland’s desire to possess it. The next day, Kléber-Lafayette’s insurance clerk (Eddie Malin) arrives at Charles’ villa to gain his signature on a million-dollar policy for the sculpture. Only after Charles signs it does he realize that as part of the process the Cellini will be subjected to a highly technical examination to ensure its authenticity. Frantic to spare Charles a lengthy query once the statuette is found out to be a fake, thus placing the legitimacy of all his other masterpieces in question, Nicole hires Simon to help her break into the museum and steal back the Venus. Unable, as yet, to reveal his true identity to her, Simon reluctantly agrees to partake of this venture.
On the eve of their planned heist, Leland makes an impromptu visit to Charles’ villa, proposing his hand in marriage, merely to gain access to the Cellini as a family heirloom. Unable to dissuade him from his cause, Nicole hurriedly accepts Leland’s engagement ring before excusing herself to rush off to the museum. Meeting up with Simon, the pair hides in a nearby utility closet until the museum closes. Afterward, Simon repeatedly sets off the alarm system, slicing through the invisible beams that surround the statuette with a boomerang acquired several days earlier. After several false alarms cause the museum to go into complete lock-down mode, the guards become complacent about investigating the area, instead suspecting a complete malfunction of the system itself. Simon reveals to Nicole he knows the real reason why she wants the Cellini stolen. Furthermore, he shares with her that his participation in the heist is predicated on nothing more than his feelings for her. Moving stealthily between the guards, Simon makes his way into the museum forecourt and steals the Cellini, hiding it in a cleaner’s bucket. Dressed in her drab attire as one of the nondescript cleaners, Nicole quietly skulks off with the Cellini concealed and the two make their daring escape through the basement just as guards discover the statuette has disappeared for real this time. The next morning, Simon achieves his greatest coup; convincing Leland he has stolen the Cellini on a spree, offering to give him the statuette if he will dissolve his engagement to Nicole and immediately leave Paris. Naturally, Leland agrees and the exchange is made.  
After Leland’s departure, Nicole joins Simon at his table to celebrate their robbery. Only now, Simon has one more surprise in store. He finally reveals himself to be college-educated art expert and investigator hired by the world's largest galleries to strengthen security and uncover forgeries. However, he intends to say absolutely nothing about any of the events that have recently transpired; his pledge of ‘good faith’ predicated on Nicole’s acceptance of his proposal in marriage. With the Venus safely out of the country, no investigation regarding its legitimacy is possible. Relieved, Charles agrees to Simon’s terms; to officially retire from forgeries.  Alas, as the newly wedded couple depart Charles’ villa for the last time, they spy South American art collector, Senor Paravideo (Marcel Dalio) hurriedly coming up the walk to admire Charles’ Van Gogh. Has Charles changed his ways? Hardly. Does it matter? Not really. Love has triumphed as Nicole and Simon drive off to begin their legitimate lives together as man and wife.
How To Steal a Million is an expertly played farce, lent its intercontinental charm by veteran cinematographer, Charles Lang; Paris, and its reasonable Fox facsimiles recreated for virtually all of the interiors, sparkling with cosmopolitan sophistication; Alexandre Trauner’s Production Design a visual treat for the eye.  The picture may lack William Wyler’s usual attention for delivering a more intimate affair (in point of fact, it does), but Wyler’s focus herein is primarily – and wisely situated on the pseudo-antagonistic chemistry between O’Toole’s stiff-britches investigator cum thief, and, Hepburn’s magnificently coiffured young Miss of this catered affair. As this détente never fails to enthrall, How to Steal a Million emerges with some good solid acting, countless exchanges of debonair dialogue, and, with the added plus of seeing the portly and playful Hugh Griffith, and, frenetically charged Eli Wallach as the wily ole fraud and dementedly wealthy art lover respectively.  This is the sort of diamond tiara-styled rom/com Hollywood has not made in decades, and furthermore, would not even know where to begin concocting today. It serves the material well the cast is culled from an alumni of the very best the industry then had to offer. I sincerely have no idea who could be cast today if any such fool notion was to be applied. Nevertheless, How To Steal a Million continues to stand as a prime exemplar from this bygone era when stars were stars and shone beyond the footlights with a thousand kilowatt stardust in unabashed professionalism that, like the era from whence it came, now seems as lost to us as the ghost flowers of yesteryears vintage in Teflon-coated talent.
No regrets with Twilight Time’s new to Blu release of How to Steal a Million. It’s mostly dreamy with a few minor caveats to consider. Fox has provided TT’s boutique label with another quality affair; eye-popping colors, accurately represented grain, good color balance – mostly – and spot on contrast. There is a brief moment during the scene where Nicole treats Simon’s flesh wound in the kitchen, where the image briefly – and inexplicably – falters; as though it were cobbled together from several dupes inserted: even the camera’s perspective jump cuts – twice – to a closer, then closer still re-framing of the exact same shot while the action taking place seamlessly continues. There are also a few very brief scenes where colors lean toward a queer green bias. Case in point, Nicole driving Simon back to the Ritz. Although this sequence is shot at night, there are no genuine blacks, but tonal variations of a muddy grey/brown with an ever so slight bilious wash applied to everything. Again, it’s a brief interruption in an otherwise immaculate visual presentation. A tad disappointing; the audio remains 2.0 DTS mono; John Williams (billed as Johnny Williams in the credits) main title score sounding strident and slightly distorted. Mercifully, TT gives us an isolated track of the complete score in 5.1 DTS, showing off these orchestrations to their very best advantage and ‘wow’ do they sound good. The other extra of noteworthy merit: Biography’s Special on Audrey Hepburn. It’s presented in SD and, at times, suffers from the limited source materials and edge effects inherent in old TV broadcasts. But it is still worth the viewing. Finally, we get an audio commentary from Eli Wallach and Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. This was recorded for the 2003 DVD release of How To Steal a Million and I have to say it is disappointingly sparse. Bottom line: How To Steal a Million is vintage Wyler, Hepburn and O’Toole. The Blu-ray takes a quantum leap forward from the tired old Fox Studio Classics DVD. This is a ‘must have’ purchase. And, with only 3000 copies available, I would not waste any time ordering yours today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

1 comment:

David M. said...

I've never read a decent review of this wonderful, perfectly lightweight movie anywhere, until now. Why am I not surprised? No reviewer gets classic Hollywood like you do, Nick. Every time I'm on the fence about upgrading from a DVD of an old favourite to a new Blu-Ray I wait for the NIXPIX review, and I know I'm not the only one. Thanks for the good word on "How To Steal A Million".