Shirley MacLaine Gives Michael Caine a Lesson in Comedy Thriller ‘Gambit’


The 1960s had a strong line in twisty heist capers with one-word titles, and among the most creative and engaging is Ronald Neame‘s Gambit (1966), starring Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. This movie’s been surprisingly hard to find in its widescreen version, so Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration finally presents this lark in Techniscope, as God and Universal intended.

The ’60s also had a trend, triggered by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in warning audiences not to give away the ending. The advertising for Gambit tweaks that by asking us not to tell the beginning. It’s good advice, but we can’t follow it, so all our spoilers will concern that remarkable first half hour. Then we’ll pretty much say nothing further.

The credits and opening scene are shot on location in Hong Kong. As a woman in a green dress is followed down the street, framed by a car’s windshield and a pair of hands on the wheel, Gambit expects us to believe we’re seeing MacLaine and Caine. In fact, they’re doubles, for the budget wasn’t sending them anywhere. The closeups of Caine in the car use rear projection, and the rest of the film is shot in Los Angeles, no matter what the story says. Of course, a million Hollywood films have done this kind of thing, but in Gambit, it’s unconsciously relevant to themes of masquerades and flim-flam.

Soon enough, Caine’s taciturn character will introduce himself as Sir Harry Dean, at least partly a lie. MacLaine’s character won’t be identified for 30 minutes, but for convenience, we’ll tell you now that she’s Nicole Chang, the stateless offspring of a French-Canadian mother and Eurasian father. If my division is correct, that makes her about one-fourth Chinese. Even though the setpiece we’re about to describe will sell her as Sir Harry’s inscrutable Asian trophy wife in silk dresses, lacquered hair, and exotic makeup, complete with tape at the eyes to help convince viewers that MacLaine can “look Chinese”, the rest of Gambit shows the real Nicole as just looking like MacLaine.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but these details are relevant to modern viewers who may be prepared to take umbrage at stereotypes and cross-ethnic casting. During this set piece, Herbert Lom’s Middle Eastern character in the fictional country of Dammuz is presented with dark makeup and a fez, while Roger C. Carmel’s character wears a turban and makeup. In the first big switcheroo, all this is exposed as Harry’s fantasy based on his assumptions and stereotypes, all of which will be exploded.

In “real life”, Lom’s character will look like Lom, as he does in the Pink Panther films, and Carmel’s cartoon figure won’t exist at all. Nicole will even tell Lom’s character that he’s not the way she pictured him. The story will have much fun contrasting Harry’s vexed reality with his fantasy images, and these gags implicitly reflect the difference between Hollywood fantasies and reality. For example, the sleek fantasy of air travel and hotels will be exposed as hectic travails of crowding, hustling, and bored service personnel.

The masterstroke in Gambit‘s presentation of its characters is seen in the contrast between Harry’s fantasy image of Nicole and her reality. When introduced in a multi-ethnic chorus line in a seedy dance club, she appears bored and sullen, even hostile, as the dancers emerge to fulfill their duties as taxi dancers at ten cents a dance. This predicts attitudes expressed by the dancers in Sweet Charity (1969), Bob Fosse’s film version of his 1966 Broadway hit. At this point, MacLaine, very much in charge of her career, must have already wanted to star in that project. Gambit hints at being a preview. When Nicole gets a load of her fancy hotel room, she looks about one second away from launching into “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

Again we’re getting ahead of the game. The masterstroke regarding Nicole (and we don’t even know her name yet) is that she won’t speak a word of dialogue during the entire 30-minute first act. Nameless except as the phony “Lady Dean”, she’ll be a silent, inscrutable, objectified automaton at the center of the image and the men’s designs.

Harry has recruited her because she’s the spitting image of their target’s late wife, who herself strongly resembled a priceless ancient Chinese bust that Harry intends to lift. Nicole is a living objectification twice removed, and she’ll follow orders and play her role as we wonder what she thinks and what’s really going on. Harry won’t care since she’s his perfect fantasy construct, as Gambit will finally reveal when the story comes out of this fugue.

During this fantasy segment, we follow the perfect plot as it exists in Harry’s mind, and we finally understand that this is one of the era’s heist capers and not the spy caper it might otherwise have been, and which Caine also made. “You’re not one of those spies who get blown up, are you?” Nicole will ask at one point as she’s putting it together.

As director Ronald Neame explains in his archival commentary track, MacLaine conceived the brilliant idea of having her speak not a word during the fake-out. She may be silent and artificial, but she rivets our attention. The shock when she expresses Nicole’s down-to-earth personality is all the more delightful by contrast. Nicole turns out to be a hip, honest, good-hearted person who sees everything clearly. “If I were the richest man in the world, I certainly wouldn’t fall for this,” she tells Harry when she starts to grasp his plot. He dismisses her with, “You’re not, and he will!” But she’s right, and by this point, Gambit will have several more tricks up its sleeve.

The plot could be seen as Nicole gradually becoming a real person instead of a fantasy. Her first step is remaking or unmaking herself from the Chinese hair and dress to a look of her choosing, which arrests Harry’s attention and makes him admit she’s beautiful. The next step will find her in normal clothes and makeup, performing a crucial physical action that not only focuses Harry’s attention but leads to his declaration of love. On Harry’s side, Gambit‘s story documents his unbending from an aloof, larcenous control freak to someone who sees the real Nicole.

The tag-team commentary by film writers Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, and Sergio Mims discusses the script’s history. Thompson reveals that the story credit for Sidney Carroll refers to a lengthy, complex script that got considerably changed by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent. Thompson compares the density and time shifts of Carroll’s version to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), which makes us think somebody should film Carroll’s script.

Jonathan Carroll, the father of fantasy novelist, scripted another 1966 film with a brilliant twist, Fielder Cook’s A Big Hand for the Little Lady, one of the decade’s hidden gems. Davies was a prolific English scriptwriter whose work includes the heist film Crooks Anonymous (Ken Annakin, 1962) and the epic hit Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Annakin, 1965). Sargent’s extraordinary and wide-ranging career can hardly be summarized, but he won Oscars for Julia (Fred Zinneman, 1977) and Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980). Gambit was his first feature credit after doing lots of television.

Neame, an English director, made a multitude of disparate films. The excellent, truth-based The Man Who Never Was (1956) also recounts a great fake-out. The same year Gambit was released came another international lark for Universal, A Man Could Get Killed. Neame’s most famous effort is The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a star-studded disaster movie. It’s a close call, but Neame’s best film might be Tunes of Glory (1960), a character study with Alec Guinness and John Mills.

If Gambit isn’t Neame’s best, this highly ’60s widescreen color trifle shot by Clifford Stine, scored by Maurice Jarre, and featuring Oscar-nominated production and costume design, is among his most shamelessly entertaining.

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