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Gambit (DVD Review)

15 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Herbert Lom.

It must have had something to do with 1964’s Topkapi, the museum-targeted heist comedy that became a big hit on sheer merit despite a cast that didn’t necessarily portend major box office: Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and subsequent Oscar winner Peter Ustinov. Within a couple years, it seemed as if every other week or so, someone was trying to make away on screen with priceless booty. And sometimes, major stars got involved.

The summer of ’66 brought William Wyler’s How To Steal a Million, which teamed Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole — two of the most attractive performers then going and of compatible poundage, both at the box office and in real life. Then at year-end, Gambit became Universal’s pick for its holiday picture — which, in retrospect it’s an even mellower affair than it was at the time by virtue of it status as (opposite a chemistry-heavy Shirley MacLaine) Michael Caine’s first Hollywood movie.

Once Caine got major critical huzzahs as bespectacled secret agent Harry Palmer in 1965’s The Ipcress File — at this time, actors in glasses were about as rare as baseball players with glasses — things moved fast even before the two subsequent Palmer sequels. Alfie, from summer-’66, was an international career-maker that eventually got Caine an Oscar nomination. Released almost in tandem was The Wrong Box, a loopy/macabre comedy so twisted that it remains one of the most conspicuous “Why is it not on DVD?” titles.

December payoff Gambit was never more than agreeable fluff, but agreeable easily trumps disagreeable, right? The plot hinges on the physical resemblance of a Eurasian nightclub entertainer (MacLaine) to the dead wife of an Arab multimillionaire played by (longtime Inspector Clouseau nemesis) Herbert Lom. With the Hong Kong nightspot employing MacLaine not exactly of Copacabana caliber, she’s skeptically receptive to the financial rewards being dangled if she’ll agree to pose as Caine’s wife and act as a Lom “distraction.” This will crucially assist Caine’s plot to rifle a valuable Lom-owned statue that resembles the late wife and (naturally) MacLaine as well.
MacLaine doesn’t speak for maybe the first 20 or 25 minutes of the movie, an oddity that sets up a good surprise gag. Another amusement is Caine’s foiled supposition that she’s just another nightclub tootsie — when, in fact, she can chat up a savvier-than-expected Lom on all matters art. The two leads work well together, and MacLaine (32 here) gets to show off her great limbs — both when dancing early on and when pulling off some gymnastic contortions during the climactic robbery.

The Amazon print is a little grainier than I’d like, but I think this is due less to it being an on-demand DVD-R than the fact that Gambit was shot in cost-cutting Techniscope, whose inherent grain was better suited to Sergio Leone Westerns than escapist comedies. But this is still a handsome couple hours of entertainment, having earned Oscar nominations for costumes and art/set decoration and sound.

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