Tuesday 1 November 2011


(Ronald Neame, 1966)

Odd how certain films are accorded Classic status, while others, sometimes more deserving, slip through the cracks to some extent.
Gambit is a clever, funny and suspenseful caper film from the mid-sixties. It's romantic, always nice to look at, and a rewarding narrative experience. Yet it's far from acclaimed as a classic. Perhaps it's a little too self-consciously clever in its Twisty-turniness. Perhaps the combination of Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine in the lead roles doesn't have the requisite old school star power of something like Charade, say.
It should be a classic, I think. Detailing the carefully planned heist of an ancient sculpture from a reclusive North African Billionaire (drolly played by Herbert Lom), Gambit is always imaginative and interesting in it's approach.
It is also a catalogue of the pleasures of studio filmmaking at just the moment when they were about to evaporate under commercial and artistic pressure, in the mid to late 1960s. But this film is shot in lovely, thick technicolour on beautifully designed sets filled with actors in glamourous costumes. The instances of location shooting - the opening long shot of the streets of Hong Kong through the windscreen of a moving car is superbly vivid and evocative - enrich the sense of place and atmosphere.
The story is slight and familiar, but the storytelling is superb. The opening act depicts the heist going like clockwork, all the elements falling perfectly into place. MacLaine doesn't speak a word in this entire sequence, a mute doll until 27 minutes in when the story evaporates and we see that we have been shown Caine's plan as he would like it to happen, before he has actually met MacLaine. The rest of the film depicts the actual truth of the plan, ruined and adjusted throughout by complicated, awkward reality.
If the difference between how we imagine - or wish - life were and how it actually is is the real subject of Gambit, well the presentation is just as important. It slips in a little romance, a little suspense, some nicely comic moments, and always remains light and colourful.
And it is headlined by a couple of proper movie stars, MacLaine doing a variation on her kooky, vulnerable dame with a tough streak, while Caine lets his slightly reptilian looks and natural charm both work for his character, who flips from charming to selfish thoughout. They have enough chemistry to make their relationship charm, just like the film itself.

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