Gambit (1966)

I have a soft spot for heist movies.

And Shirley MacLaine.

And Michael Caine.

And movies about inept crooks.

Which, given that they all come together in Gambit, made this a film I had to watch.

Gambit begins in Hong Kong, where Harry Dean (Michael Caine) surreptitiously follows a woman through the streets of Hong Kong. He watches until she goes into a night club.

Later, we see the woman in action, as she (Shirley MacLaine) dances at the club. Harry takes a seat beside his friend and associate Emile (John Abbott) and they watch the woman, Emile with a surprised but approving look on his face. Yes, she will be the perfect fit.

Once the dance is over, the women go offstage, change, and then trickle back into the hall. The woman Emile and Harry have been watching comes back in too, and Harry approaches her with an offer: $5000 and a British passport if she will do some work for them.

The story moves fast. The woman (her name is Nicole, though this doesn’t emerge till later in the film) is amazingly taciturn: she doesn’t speak a word. Ever. But, dressed in a dramatic and rather showy fashion, she soon arrives, with Harry Dean besides her, at a place named Dammuz, somewhere in the Middle East.

Harry and the woman are posing as husband and wife. And no ordinary couple, either: these two are nobility, Lord and Lady Dean. They are met at Dammuz Airport by a man named Ram (Roger C Carmel), who’s come in a Rolls Royce to take them to the Hotel Semiramis, where the Deans will be staying.

Soon, they’re at the hotel and have been ushered to the reception counter (where—continuing in the tradition of luxury established by the Rolls—they are booked into the Royal Suite). While Harry Dean is signing the register, Emile comes by, to stand beside Harry briefly and basically let his presence register with Harry. He goes off right after.

Up in their suite, Harry shows Nicole a magazine which explains something (a very little something) of why she has come along on this so far puzzling escapade. This, he tells her as he points to an article, is Ahmed Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), probably the richest man in the world. Shahbandar has a penthouse suite on the topmost floor of the Hotel Semiramis, which he owns.

And, turning over a page, Harry points to a photo of Shahbandar’s wife. Twenty years earlier, Shahbandar had married this young woman, but she died within a year of their wedding.

Harry is certain that Shahbandar, on being told of Nicole’s striking resemblance to his late wife (Harry has been careful to ensure that Nicole’s clothes, jewellery and hairstyle are all geared to reinforce that resemblance), will be intrigued. He is certain, in fact, to probe more closely, and to invite them over so that he can meet Nicole and see for himself.

Meanwhile, Harry makes a phone call to a pay phone somewhere in the crowded marketplace of Dammuz; Emile, who has been hovering next to the phone, receives it. He assures Harry that he has done the work required of him.

And, like clockwork too, an invitation arrives from Shahbandar: will Lord and Lady Dean be his guests at dinner tonight? Harry, of course, accepts; but well before they are scheduled to go up to Shahbandar’s penthouse suite, he gives Nicole some instructions on how she is to behave, what she is to do. The most important instruction is that at 11:30 that night, no matter what she’s doing, she must leave immediately and take a taxi to the airport. At midnight, she will be out of Dammuz and headed back home.

At the appointed time, they are ushered into Shahbandar’s private lift, to be taken up to his apartment. Just as the door’s closing, Harry fumbles. His cufflink drops, and he quickly nudges it, with his foot, into the gap between lift cabin and floor. The cufflink drops through, down the shaft. Harry makes a big fuss about it, saying he must have it back now.

So, willy-nilly, Ram takes the lift down to the bottom of the shaft (the basement of the hotel), where he summons a worker and they begin searching for the cufflink. In the few minutes he gets, Harry starts chatting with Shahbandar’s mechanic/driver, from whom he elicits the information that Shahbandar owns three Rolls Royces. And there’s an electronically controlled gate there—at the end of the garage.

Anyway, ‘Lord and Lady Dean’ go up to Shahbandar’s home, which is like a museum: fine art on every wall, the entire space the epitome of luxury. Their host is (as was to be assumed) obviously fascinated by Nicole, though he does not tell her so right now.

Instead, after a while, he leads Harry and Nicole into another room, where, on a pedestal, sits a bust of a beautifulwoman who looks the spitting image of Nicole. Shahbandar explains: this is a priceless 2,000-year old statue of a part-Burmese empress named Lee Soo. Shahbandar talks of his wife, and their short-lived marriage; and how, ever since he saw this bust, he’d wanted it because of its resemblance to his wife.

It’s a touching and emotional moment for Shahbandar, and Harry and Nicole both manage to look touched.

After dinner, Harry mentions, by the way, that he and Nicole had wanted to see the sights of Dammuz. Shahbandar, taking the cue, offers to take them around, but Harry excuses himself, saying he was work he needs to complete—but Nicole would be grateful to take up the offer, wouldn’t she? Nicole, as one is used to by now, says nothing and only smiles enigmatically. Shahbandar is happy to take her out to see the sights of Dammuz, to a nightclub and so on.

While she is with Shahbandar, Harry Dean is, methodically and efficiently, breaking into Shahbandar’s penthouse suite, extracting the Lee Soo bust, and making his escape.

At 11.30, on the dot, Nicole slips away, pretending to go to the ladies’, but instead out into the street outside the nightclub. Here she takes a taxi to the airport, and away.

All perfect, all like clockwork.

All, as it turns out, what Harry Dean has planned. This hasn’t happened yet, it’s just what he’s thought up.

Now, looking across the Hong Kong nightclub to where Nicole is sitting by herself, Harry tells Emile that he will now go and offer that girl this chance of a lifetime.

Thus begins the real adventure, and it proves just how many slips there can be between the cup and the lip. How the best-laid plans of mice and men can go completely haywire. Because Ahmed Shahbandar didn’t get his wealth by being stupid and gullible; and he doesn’t retain his wealth by being trusting and careless. Because Nicole is not the quiet, serene woman Harry had imagined. And because there are many things, small and large, that Harry Dean, despite his very best efforts, could not possibly have factored in while making his plans.

Gambit isn’t a laugh-a-minute comic heist of the style of I Soliti Ignoti (which, if you’ve been following this blog long enough, you’ve probably seen me mention several times). It isn’t hugely clever, in the way Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is. But it’s still an entertaining, enjoyable film.

Perhaps proof of how entertaining this film is can be seen in the fact that it was remade, in 2012, as Gambit. Colin Firth starred as Harry Dean, with Cameron Diaz in the equivalent role to Nicole Chang (though she’s quite a different character); Alan Rickman was Lionel Shabandar. It’s been directed by Michael Hoffman and with a screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, in turn based on a short story by Sidney Carroll (for the 1966 Gambit, Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay, while Ronald Neame directed the film).  

What I liked about this film:

The fast-paced, interesting story, which has very little extraneous stuff. All that happens is, in its way, necessary to the plot. And, the plot itself, which has some great twists and turns: especially once Harry, Nicole and Emile arrive in Daamuz and put Harry’s plot into action. The way things fall apart, the sudden obstacles that appear, what throws a spanner in the works: all adds up to make for a pretty entertaining film. The twist at the very end of the film is the icing on the cake.

Then, the humour of it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not hugely funny, but the light humour of it is good. The chemistry between Caine and MacLaine is delightful, especially when Harry realizes just what a chatterbox Nicole can be (a very far cry from the taciturn, regal Nicole of his plan!), how fond she is of going off on tangents. And Nicole discovers how different Harry is from the image of the polished British aristocrat he’s been pretending to be.

Plus, both of them look fabulous. Shirley MacLaine is not convincing as Eurasian, but anyhow.

What I didn’t like:

Not really a ‘didn’t like’, but I did wish they’d explained this: how is it that Nicole knows so much about what I’d have thought would be fairly arcane business? She seems to be well-versed in details of art that most people (not just a Cockney cat burglar like Harry) would probably not know.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Given that I watched both versions of Gambit, it’s worthwhile comparing the two.

Interestingly, while both are based on the same story, the two Gambit films are pretty different from each other. This is obvious even in the first 15 minutes of Gambit (2012), as Harry Dean (Colin Firth) is introduced: far from being a Cockney cat burglar, this man is a reputed and much-respected art dealer. Harry works for a brutal, abusive, nudist (!) man named Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) who’s recently unleashed a torrent of abuse on Harry, humiliating him and leaving him smarting.

Harry, along with his friend The Major (Tom Courtenay), who is an expert at forging paintings, concocts a plan to have his revenge on Shabandar. This involves a famous set of twin paintings by Monet, Haystacks at Dawn and Haystacks at Dusk, painted over the course of a single day. Haystacks at Dusk was last heard of as being in the possession of Hermann Göring, part of the art looted by the Nazis. When the Third Reich fell and Göring’s hideout was taken over by the Americans, among the soldiers was a Texan named Puznowski.

Shabandar is mad about the two Haystacks paintings. Haystacks at Dawn he managed to acquire at an auction after some very hectic and bitter bidding, and he has been searching ever since for Haystacks at Dusk. Basically, Shabandar is so desperate to get his hands on the painting, he will probably pay any price to have it.

To this end, Harry has tracked down a woman named PJ Puznowski, the grand-daughter of that American GI who helped storm Göring’s home. Along with the Major, he concocts a complicated plan to have PJ masquerade as the unwitting owner of a family heirloom she hasn’t even realized is an heirloom.

Gambit (1966) and Gambit (2012) are similar in the broader points. Both feature art. Both are about a Britisher named Harry Dean who is out to swindle a very wealthy man named Shabandar (or Shahbandar as in the case of Herbert Lom’s character—incidentally, I was struck by this name—in Persian it means shah (master) + bandar (harbour) = harbourmaster, a valid enough surname, given that surnames in many parts of the world are derived from occupations; Lionel Shabandar’s somewhat unusual surname is never explained, and since he seems to be quite obviously Caucasian, it remains a mystery).

But, to return to the points of similarity between the two films. Harry Dean has an accomplice who is an expert art forger. And the two of them concoct a plan using an offbeat, in-her-own-way exotic woman who might be expected to be of some interest to Shahbandar. The first 15-20 minutes of the film play out similarly, too, with Harry Dean imagining how the plan is going to work. One difference, though, is that in the earlier film, Harry imagines it in such detail, it appears to the audience that the entire plot is shown right there. In the later film, Harry tells PJ the background of Haystacks, and why Shabandar is so interested in the painting. The entire plot is not explained, not shown. Nowhere close.

And that first bit is really all there is in common between the two films. Beyond that, Gambit (2012) goes its own way, with no similarity to its precursor. Its tone is different (the later film is more comedy than anything else, and the comedy often descends into somewhat tame smuttiness, or jokes that veer close to racist stereotyping). Its story is very different, and the end is a lot different too. They’re both entertaining enough, though I liked the older Gambit better: the somewhat childish, over-the-top humour of the 2012 version got on my nerves at times.


8 thoughts on “Gambit (1966)

  1. Hello Madhuji
    I have watched the 2012 version. I am huge fan of both Alan Rickman and Colin Firth. The remaining cast is good as well especially Stanley Tucci. As you say it’s comical at times. I will watch the old one if I get a chance. Are you interested in podcasts?
    If you are there is a good one with Sir Michael Caine called Heist with Michael Caine. Check out if you get a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I don’t really have the time to listen to podcasts, that one does sound very interesting! I’ve made a note of it, will try to listen to it sometime. Thank you for that recommendation.


  2. Madhu,
    As I am travelling I have not been regular in commenting on your posts which were in my line of interest. This has been overtaken by another one on which I was able to post my comments.

    I find this one interesting. Michael Caine and two bumbling crooks reminded me of ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’. If ‘Gambit’ is anywhere near, it must be a good watch.

    Your repeat glowing mention of ‘I Soliti Ignoti’ has placed it in my next-to-watch list. Though from your review I was initially startled to find Marcello Mastroianni’ in the cast among so many. Later, I realised that ‘La Dolce Vita’ and 81/2 etc. came later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • … and you remind me, AK, that I have not watched <I<Dirty Rotten Scoundrels yet. Someday, soon.

      Incidentally, talking of I Soliti Ignoti, I have discovered another Italian comic heist movie, Fiasco in Milan, which is supposed to be also good. I’ve got it on my list, so will watch and review sometime.


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