Ever noticed how many old films were set in Paris? The Last Time I saw Paris, Gigi, An American in Paris and countless others celebrated the French capital’s reputation as one of the world’s most romantic cities. Interestingly, too, a lot of films that weren’t primarily romances were also set in Paris. Ninotchka, A Shot in the Dark, Charade – and this one, like Charade, an Audrey Hepburn starrer that’s a fantastic cocktail of comedy, romance, and most importantly, very clever crime.
The film begins with an art auction in Paris. A priceless (well, nearly priceless – it’s been put up for sale at an asking price of $200,000) Cezanne comes under the hammer, and the gentleman who’s offering the painting is introduced to the prospective buyers. This is Monsieur Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith), owner of the world-famous ‘Bonnet Collection’, an aristocrat with an enviable collection of art.
– So enviable, in fact, that the Kleber-Lafayette Museum have approached Bonnet to loan them one of his art treasures for an exhibition that the museum’s hosting. Bonnet has agreed to lend them a beautiful Cellini Venus for the duration of the exhibition. It’s such a lovely piece that the museum director, who comes (with armed guards, and in a police van) to fetch the Cellini Venus is almost in tears when he finally gets to touch the magnificent piece with his own hands.
All of this is much to the chagrin of Bonnet’s daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn), who’s rushed home on hearing the news of the Cezanne auction on the radio. The Cezanne has been sold for $515,000 – a hefty addition to the Bonnet coffers.
Nicole has reason to be upset: she knows that that Cezanne is hardly worth the canvas it’s painted on – because it was painted, not by Cezanne, but by Charles Bonnet himself.
Nicole’s daddy is an art forger, and a very good (and completely unscrupulous) one at that. He is a trained artist, and uses his training well in ‘creating’ works of art by the Impressionists. The Bonnet villa is chockfull of Impressionist masterpieces, each of them actually a Bonnet. Every now and then, Charles Bonnet magnanimously sells off one of the much-in-demand pieces from his collection.
While Nicole is frantic with worry at the thought that her father will be caught and will spend the rest of his days behind bars, Bonnet is not in the least worried – and does not even (unlike Nicole) think there’s anything wrong with his profession. It’s a family business, really – that Cellini Venus was carved, not by the 16th century Benvenuto Cellini, but by Charles Bonnet’s father, who used his wife as a model.
Despite Nicole’s attempts to stop her father from lending the Cellini Venus to the museum, it’s taken away. That night, with the servants long gone to bed and Charles Bonnet at the museum, attending a party to launch the exhibition, Nicole is reading in bed (bit of trivia here: she’s reading a French edition of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Interesting, considering Hepburn never acted in a Hitchcock film). … when she hears someone creeping about downstairs.
This turns out to be a “tall, good-looking, blue-eyed ruffian” (as Nicole later describes him to her father). Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) has just scraped off a little bit of paint from a Van Gogh (actually a Bonnet) which hangs in the hall. He’s in the process of taking down the painting when Nicole, who’s crept stealthily down the stairs and has been watching him, takes down an antique pistol from the wall. She turns on the lights, and pointing the pistol (albeit with very shaky hands) at Simon, challenges him.
This burglar is the oddest Nicole would ever have imagined encountering: he is quick to put down the painting, even hang it back up on the wall, and he apologises for having been the cause of getting Nicole out of bed.
Nicole is surprised (also more than a little dazzled by the man?) and finally agrees to let him go, without phoning for the police.
Unfortunately, as she’s putting the gun down, it goes off and Simon gets shot in the arm. Only a flesh wound, as Nicole says later, when she’s kindly binding him up, and Simon huffily points out that it’s his flesh.
The end result of all these shenanigans is that Simon now can’t drive home, what with his injured arm. When Nicole offers to get a taxi for him (even pay for it), he points out that it won’t do her reputation any good.
The only solution is for Nicole to drive him home. Which she does, and is even more taken aback in the process – because Simon has a very fancy car, and is staying at the Ritz.
When they reach the Ritz, Simon gets a taxi for Nicole to go back home in. When she tells him he’s “utterly mad” and asks him – very sarcastically – if he wouldn’t like to kiss her goodnight while he’s at it, he does, leaving Nicole in a complete daze.
… while he settles down in his hotel room, with the scraping of paint from the ‘Van Gogh’, which he then proceeds to examine very carefully.
The next day, Nicole runs into the ‘society burglar’ (as Simon had referred to himself) at the museum. Much to Nicole’s irritation, the director of the museum goes out of his way to tell Nicole and her ‘friend’ (Simon insists on tagging along) all the details of the many security measures that have been taken to ensure the Cellini Venus remains safe while on display at the museum.
Nicole has a hard time shaking off her enthusiastic admirer (Simon is sticking to her like a limpet). From the museum, he goes off to meet an art dealer named de Solnay (an old favourite of mine, the wonderful Charles Boyer). De Solnay has obviously been harbouring suspicions about Bonnet, and asks for Simon’s opinion. No, says Simon; he is certain Bonnet is on the level. This man has no need to create forgeries; he’s already rich enough.
The scene now shifts to the Bonnets; Nicole, telling her father about the man she’s going out to dinner with, lets fall the fact that he’s an American millionaire named Davis Leland. From this little titbit of information, she discovers – from her father – that Davis Leland is a very enthusiastic collector of art. He will do anything to add to his collection. But what could be his motive in wanting to date Nicole? Is he, perhaps, suspicious? Could he be thinking that Bonnet is up to no good?
Fortunately, that evening at dinner, Nicole’s fears are laid to rest. Davis Leland (Eli Wallach in a delightful role) turns out to be more eager for the Cellini Venus than he is for Nicole. He confesses to Nicole that he wanted to get to know her so that he could approach Charles Bonnet through her. And he wants to approach Charles Bonnet because he wants to buy the Cellini Venus, no other reason.
Nicole is so relieved, she showers Leland with kisses – not realising that she’s getting his hopes up.
The next morning, the Bonnet household receives another visitor: a gentleman from the insurance company. It turns out that the museum would like to insure the Cellini Venus for the duration of the exhibition. The insurance company has agreed to insure, for the colossal sum of $ 1 million, the famous statue. All they need is Charles Bonnet’s signature on the documents, authorising the insurance… which Bonnet happily signs.
As he’s leaving, the gentleman from the insurance company invites Bonnet to come to the museum a few days hence, to be present at the technical examination of the Cellini Venus.
Of course, says the gentleman. In order for the statue to be insured, it must be valued by an expert. The art expert Professor Bauer will be arriving in Paris from Switzerland to examine the Cellini Venus and give his opinion on its value.
Having said which, the gentleman takes himself off, leaving a shattered father and daughter. Charles Bonnet tells Nicole that he knows Bauer’s reputation well: the man cannot be fooled. He has an armoury of chemicals and other means of evaluating works of art; the Cellini Venus will be exposed as a fake within minutes of coming into his hands. All is lost. The entire myth of the Bonnet Collection will go up in flames.
…so Nicole, good and loving daughter that she is, does the only thing possible: she goes to Simon Dermott at the Ritz, and commissions the burglar to steal the Cellini Venus for her. And that’s what the film is all about – about how Dermott (who is he, by the way?) and Nicole go about sneaking the Venus out of the museum before Professor Bauer can see her; how Nicole finds herself in love with one man but engaged to another; and what eventually happens to the Venus.
What I liked about this film:
How to Steal a Million is one of the classic heist films: clever and very smart. The scripting is good, the pace fast, and there’s plenty of humour to spice it up. Some lovely romance too. All in all, highly recommended as good entertainment. The cast is manageably small (besides being very talented – there are some good performances here), and the story never gets too complicated to be confusing.
What I didn’t like:
I would have preferred it if it hadn’t been quite so obvious, from nearly the beginning, who Simon Dermott really was. The surprise when he reveals his identity to Nicole didn’t come as much of a surprise to me.
And there are a few very minor details in the plot to steal the Venus, that didn’t make sense, or depended too heavily on coincidence.
But. Despite all of that, I’d still rate this as one of the most entertaining heist films I’ve ever seen. Oh, and Audrey Hepburn – in Givenchy dresses and Cartier jewels – looks even more elegant than usual.