Gambit (1966)

screenshot from Gambit

Directed by: Ronald Neame
Screenwriter(s): Jack Davies, Alvin Sargent (from an original story by Sidney Carroll)
Starring: Michael Caine, Shirley Maclaine, Herbert Lom, Roger C. Carmel, Arnold Moss
Genre: Comedy / Heist
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 44m
Rating: 9 out of 10

Often overlooked, but perfect for the small screen, this 1966 crime caper is Michael Caine at his most charming. Neither he, nor his two co-stars (Herbert Lom and Shirley Maclaine), put a foot wrong in what can only be described as a hugely entertaining romp.

Caine is Harry Dean, a career cat burglar set on parting the world’s richest man (Lom) from his priceless statue of an Asian princess. In order to achieve this, he needs the help of waitress Suzy Chang (Maclaine). She just happens to be the dead ringer of both the billionaire’s late wife and, coincidentally, the princess in the statue. Maclaine is one of those actresses who can sometimes grate, but her tough cookie persona is well-suited to the world-weary Suzy, a woman who’s obviously seen more than her fair share of the thin end of the wedge.

Neame, who went on to direct both The Poseidon Adventure and one of my favourite films, Hopscotch, has the necessary deftness of touch to pull off both the central caper and the stuttering romance between Chang and Dean. He is well-served by an entertaining yet plausible script from Davies and Sargant.

The one sour note is the use of Western actors to play ethnic roles. Lom, Carmel (Harry Mudd, Star Trek TOS) and Moss are all playing Middle Eastern characters, while Maclaine’s character is Asian. We’re not in the same category of racist caricature as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and it was standard practice in 1966, but it may be a deal-breaker for some.

Do yourself a favour and rediscover this little gem.