HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, an elegant, slow fuse exercise in mid-60s star-gazing and costume design worship (it often seems like one big commercial for Givenchy), would attract less attention today from revisionist reviewers and nostalgia buffs were it not directed by the esteemed William Wyler, the stylish perfectionist whose accumulation of twelve Best Director nominations holds a commanding lead in the roster of his peers. The Wyler cache therefore attaches more notice to this froth bubble than it otherwise would or should be granted. Smooth, nice on the eyes, quickly forgettable, it’s more snack than buffet.
In Paris, a genial art forger is being investigated by authorities who employ an undercover ‘burglar’ to test the ‘original Masters-pieces he’s sold at auction. The spy is caught in the act by the forger’s daughter. The rather windblown plot turns on their immediate mutual attraction, mixed identities and loyalties, an over-lengthy heist and lots of expensive clothes. The girl is vexed by her papa’s line of work (and circular reasoning), but— more crucially for the 123 minutes this takes to play out—is chic as only a Parisian art forgers daughter in a comedy could be, circa 1966, starring Audrey Hepburn.
She’s 36 here, and, while looking—well, like Audrey Hepburn–it’s essentially the same winning-gamine-scamp business she’d done since Roman Holiday, 13 years earlier, also directed by Wyler. This time, instead of Peck, Holden or Grant, the manly countercharm is provided by Peter O’Toole, taking his second light-material break, following What’s New Pussycat? They mesh effortlessly (and got along swell as pals during the shoot), and in support are further buffered by Eli Wallach (replacing George C. Scott, who arrived hungover and was shown the door) and Charles Boyer. Hugh Griffith plays another of his rascals—and continued his off-screen rambunctiousness during the production. *
It came in 34th for the year, making money, but not enough to sufficiently cover a hefty price tag of $6,480,000. With Fernard Gravey, Marcel Dalio, Jacques Marin and Moustache. Droll and airy, but underneath the comfortable stars and polished handling, the story and script feel rather forced. For many, the cast and settings will suffice. **
* Like O’Toole, Griffith was a legendary imbiber, his blowouts of Welsh proportions. At one point he was fired from this picture, after stunts like walking nude through the George V Hotel, holding a ‘Do not disturb’ sign over his privates, altered to read ‘Do disturb’. His fueled buffoonery had also seen him dumped from the conclusion to Mutiny On The Bounty (notice he just disappears from the finale), as if that leviathan didn’t have woes enough: the general blame-game for that 1962 epic always falls on Marlon Brando’s behaviors, but recall that Griffith had fellow boozers Trevor Howard and Richard Harris to help drink Tahiti dry while Marlon did his thing.
** I prefer another Hepburn comedy set in The City Of Light, 1964’s Paris, When It Sizzles, with lover William Holden. It was widely panned, but my snark guess is that if director Richard Quine’s name had been replaced by Wyler’s, the same movie shot-for-shot would have drawn raves. Most audiences and critics would favor her third same-period Parisian lark, Charade.