February 26, 2012

MOVIES: Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966)

I was led to this one by Drew McWeeny's glowing review from earlier in the week, and McWeeny's right; Gambit is an absolute delight.

I really shouldn't say much about the plot beyond the bare bones of the setup. Michael Caine is a burglar plotting to steal a sculpture from Middle Eastern art collector Herbert Lom; he recruits dancer Shirley MacLaine to help him, believing that her uncanny resemblance to Lom's late wife will provide the finishing touch to his plan.

The three central performances are all terrific, but special notice must go to MacLaine, who holds our attention for the first half hour entirely through perfect reactions and physical acting, because her character doesn't utter a word in all that time. When she finally does speak, we begin to realize that Gambit isn't just about characters conning one another; it's about how cleverly the movie can fool us in the audience.

Some of the movie's portrayal of its Middle Eastern characters is a bit broad and cartoonish by today's standards, though never, I think, actually racist or offensive; in fact, some of that broadness is done for specific effect, to tell us something about how its characters think of one another. Similarly, while one would probably not cast MacLaine as a Eurasian these days, it's not a huge part of who the character is, and the makeup is far more subtle and gracefully done than, for instance, the ghastly offensiveness of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The Coen brothers have a remake due later this year with Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman in the Caine, MacLaine, and Lom roles. McWeeny reports that the story plays out very differently, so there's no need to avoid seeing the original for fear of having the new one spoiled for you. And with Caine and Lom as the cleverest of adversaries, and MacLaine proving to be both funny and sexy (and remarkably limber), you really should see Gambit.

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