Shirley MacLaine shows Michael Caine she's no fool in... Gambit (1966)

I'm very happy to say I'm taking part in the great Anti-Damsel Blogathon. You really must read the other entries. Or else the ghosts of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Katharine Hepburn will come get you. You can find the list here.

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The story of Gambit is simple: a thief and his art forger partner hire a nightclub dancer to pull off the theft of a sculpture. Everything goes smoothly, it's the perfect heist, everyone parts ways, the end. Uhhh, no. The best thing about Gambit is that it turns its simple plotline on its head, effectively screwing with audience expectations. This is one of those films that you wish you could see for the first time every time, and it's also one that you might not want to read about before you see it. Just warning you -- I'll be indulging in plenty of spoilers in order to talk about the ball of delight that is Shirley MacLaine's character, Nicole Chang. Read on at your own risk.

The first 15-20 minutes of Gambit are a doozy. Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and Emile (John Abbott) are at a Hong Kong nightclub watching the beautiful Nicole Chang as she dances with a group of girls on stage. Hiring her is Harry's idea, as well as the whole heist he has in mind. It's "foolproof" he confidently claims and we get to see it unfold very quickly. He hires Nicole, they steal a sculpture within 24 hours, he drops Nicole off at the airport so she can return to Hong Kong, and they never see each other again. Nice, clean, and efficient. And remember, this is just the first 20 minutes. You're left wondering "That's it? They're done? What could happen next?" Well, we cut back to the nightclub and realize those 20 minutes were all in Harry's head. He was explaining to Emile his perfect plan, and now it's time to enact it. Harry makes his way to Nicole's table, plops some coins in her glass to entice her to follow him, and then begins introductions... only to find that Nicole is still at her table. "I thought you wanted to dance." "No, I wanted you to follow me!" "You don't want to dance?" "No!" Harry's plan is already crumbling and it's hilarious.

And that's the pleasure of watching Gambit: Harry thinks he's like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but Nicole completely turns his world upside down and you realize that she's much more like Grant than he is. Interestingly, the film opens from Harry's viewpoint -- the camera tracks a woman in a green, polka-dotted dress as she walks through the city to get to her job as the credits roll. Once the credits end, the camera rotates to show that Harry has been following this woman and so we've been seeing what he's been seeing.

And then there's his "dream sequence," when he imagines how his plan will go. Throughout the dream, Nicole never utters a word. She doesn't talk, she barely blinks, she's cold and mechanical. As she dances on stage, her face is the epitome of passivity and boredom. She remains a total mystery, an enigma that Harry doesn't care to figure out because her sole purpose is to fulfill her function in his scheme. And what is this function? Nicole bares a remarkable similarity to the dead wife of Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), a Middle Eastern millionaire who owns a priceless Chinese statuette that also resembles his wife. Nicole's appearance is meant to shock Shahbandar, who will then be so entranced by her resemblance to his wife and the statuette, Harry will be able to sneak out the sculpture while Nicole distracts him. To sum it up, Nicole is there to be an object, a fact that is only solidified when you consider she's meant to emulate another object, the statuette.

This image of Nicole bursts into pieces the second Harry comes back to real life and actually interacts with her. Shirley MacLaine was the perfect choice for this character; Nicole is a chatterbox, always telling interesting things that happened to her and quirky people she's met, but she's also smart and quick-thinking. In other words, the real Nicole is definitely not the "dream Nicole." Her passive face from Harry's dream suggested mystery, but once we know her, we realize it's more that she envisions a better life for herself. The nightclub life is not what it's cracked up to be, if you can believe that. Shahbandar is guilty of objectifying, too. He idolized his wife to the point of literally putting her on a pedestal by way of the statuette. Nicole, however, makes it clear that she is vibrant and human, not something to be fetishized. Her first conversation with Harry makes this evident:

Harry: "Do I look like a crook?"
Nicole: "You do a little. Right here, from the left side of this cheek to the kind of crooked little indentation all the way up to his eyes."

As the plan goes into action, Nicole manages to change everything Harry envisioned because
he didn't factor in that she might have feelings and ideas. For example, when they arrive in Dammuz where Shahbandar lives, Harry imagined Nicole in a red dress, but when it actually happens, she's wearing yellow because it was more comfortable to travel in than what he picked out. At their hotel, Harry finally snaps:

H: "Your mind is always going off in some sort of tangent! If it's not one thing, it's another!"
N: "I can't help it if my mind goes takes a tangent every now and then."
H: "Well, it's driving me around the bloody bend!"

He faults her for not adhering to his ideal, as evidenced by another exchange where Nicole tells him it's perfectly human for her to be curious. He responds with "Well, as far as I'm concerned, you're far too human." In Harry's defense, Nicole isn't the only part of his plan that is going awry. Instead of a Rolls Royce waiting for them at the airport, they get a dirty VW Bug; he tries to drop a cuff link down the elevator shaft, but the operator picks it up; Emile is supposed to call with information from a payphone, but a man beats Emile to the phone and they have to go out and search for him. Harry's irritation grows when Nicole proves to be much more adept than him. While looking for Emile at the marketplace, Nicole notices they're being followed, which Harry dismisses as her being paranoid... until he sees them himself. The pair get separated in the crowd, leaving Harry at a loss. While he sits at a cafe, Nicole cleverly loses the men, gets the information from Emile, and finds her way to Harry. He's furious:

H: "Do you realize what sort of place this is? You could have been bought and sold for half a crown."
N: "Were you worried about me?"
H: "Not at all. I was worried about losing those two men."
N: "That's where you weren't being tricky enough... [proceeds to tell how she escaped]"

Those men who were following them, by the way, were sent by Shahbandar. Nicole wasn't the only one Harry underestimated. Expecting a fez-and-monocle-wearing eccentric millionaire, Harry is surprised to find that the man is sophisticated and extremely modern, not at all his public perception (which he admits to contributing to so his private life is separate from his public one). Instead of being dazzled by Nicole's looks, Shahbandar is immediately suspicious of how coincidental it all is and he keeps his eye on the twosome the whole time. The difference between he and Nicole is that Harry accepts Shahbandar's reality much more easily and quickly than he does Nicole's. (Whether that's a gender issue or not, I'm not sure.) Shahbandar is just one more way that Harry's plan takes an unexpected turn. Instead of getting invited to the millionaire's apartment for lunch, they're escorted to a yacht, losing Harry a chance to case the joint before he comes for the statuette. Seeing a chance to show how useful she is, Nicole finagles an offer from Shahbandar to see the apartment. She also saves Harry from looking like an idiot in front of Shahbandar multiple times, such as when he pretends to know a Chinese proverb but can't recite it so she does or when they're looking at Shahbandar's art collection and Nicole's knowledge is superior to his. It's obvious to the audience and to Nicole that Harry doesn't appreciate her, making her helpfulness a chance for respect and friendship that Harry denies... for now.

After leaving Shahbandar's apartment, Harry is thrilled -- he got to see the layout, the sculpture's location, and best of all, Shahbandar revealed how the security alarms work if anyone were to try and take the statuette. Shahbandar also agreed to show Nicole the city later that night while Harry was busy with "business calls," also known as stealing the sculpture. Harry praises Nicole for getting them so close to Shahbandar, but she's furious. Harry never said that they were stealing, although what she thought this was all for is unknown to me. She thought the job was honest: "I don't like being lied to, I don't like being taken advantage of, and I don't like crooks!" She then warns him to watch out for Shahbandar; clearly he knows the two of them are up to something. Why else would he so helpfully show them the security measures and agree to take Nicole out? So he could catch them in the act, obviously! Harry still wants to go for it, though, despite Nicole swearing that she won't go through with it.

To Harry's surprise, though, she changes her mind. She made a commitment and she likes Harry, plus she already helped him get this far. All dressed up for her date with Shahbandar, Nicole looks like a queen. Harry instantly chastises her choice of outfit and hairstyle, to which she reminds that it's her dress and her hair and she doesn't care if he likes it or not. In a moment that shows how far he's come, Harry quietly admits "I like the way you look, Nicole." Before anything more can be said, one of Shahbandar's servants fetches her and she leaves, still a little pissed. The plan moves along, Harry breaking into the apartment and Nicole watching a show with their target. Per Harry's instructions, midway through the show Nicole acts like she's going to the powder room when she's really leaving to go to the airport where she'll meet Harry. Except because she's Nicole, she doesn't go to the airport, but rather Shahbandar's apartment to help Harry, who she just knows will get caught. He's not exactly ecstatic to see she diverged from the plan once again, but he realizes he needs her.

Time is running out quicker than they thought and the bars on the top of the statuette's cage-like enclosure still need opened more to accommodate Harry's size. Exasperated, Nicole says she'll do it, and by golly, she does. In what may be my favorite moment from the film, Shirley MacLaine squeezes her tiny self into the enclosure, careful not
to touch the sensors that surround her. She shuffles her way around, grabs the statuette, and hands it up to Harry through the bars. They stand there, just looking at each other, when Harry says, "You're a clever girl, and I love you." Nicole is so overcome, she rushes into Harry's arms and sets off the alarms. He urges her to escape while he stays behind to finish the job. This scene is the most pivotal
in the entire movie. First of all, Nicole has changed into her regular clothes and her actual hair -- no more ornate Chinese clothing and colossal black hair for her. Secondly, she takes action and does something Harry can't do. He watches her in awe as she does this very difficult thing, and he finally accepts her for who she is, just as she has him. He acknowledges her intellect, too, which is fantastic. You can't blame Nicole at all when she trips the alarms. For the majority of the movie, she's been vying for equality, proving her worth time and time again. This scene is the payoff.

I won't go into all the details (that's for you to watch and find out), but I want to discuss the ending. Harry takes Nicole to Emile's studio, where she finds out that the guys only wanted to steal the statuette to create publicity. Emile made a copy of the sculpture, and with all the buzz surrounding its disappearance, he and Harry can sell the fake for a large sum. As we already know, Nicole hates dishonesty, so it's no surprise that she abhors Harry and Emile's idea. Seeing that she's ready to walk out on him, Harry apologizes to Emile and smashes the fake, telling Nicole "I do love you." Since their first kiss was a rushed affair in a taxi cab, Harry surely makes up for it by planting quite the passionate kiss on Nicole, one that literally leaves her dazed as they say their goodbyes to Emile.

As I said at the top of the post, the great fun of Gambit is watching Harry's plan go to pieces, despite his insistence that "it can't fail, it's absolutely foolproof!" His illusions are shattered so swiftly and so hilariously, it almost makes you feel bad for him. This film was Michael Caine's American debut, actually. He had done a few movies in the UK, including The Ipcress File, the picture that Shirley MacLaine saw and convinced her to ask for Caine for Gambit. Without even seeing a script, Caine signed on to do the film. While it was in production, Alfie was released and Caine was an instant star. Gambit's success sealed his stardom, leading MacLaine to jokingly remind him for years that she was responsible for his career. The two actors would reunite for the Will Ferrell/Nicole Kidman comedy Bewitched, based on the 1960's TV series.

Gambit is an interesting crime caper flick, thanks to its unique twists and its willingness to make the female protagonist as strong as, if not stronger, than the male one. Caine plays Harry completely straight, with little humor or sensitivity. It's the right thing to do since the movie's humor comes from Harry's surroundings and circumstances, while the vulnerability shows itself after the character has grown to respect Nicole. Their relationship is one deserving of inspection, and something I wish we saw more in today's films. How often is it that a woman is allowed to have funny idiosyncrasies but still portray intelligence and grace, all while showing up a male counterpart that isn't a stunted man-child? If you haven't seen Gambit, I clearly recommend it. There are many things to marvel at, from MacLaine's costumes to the leads' chemistry to the plot surprises. You won't be wasting your time.

With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. So glad you picked Shirley. She was so much fun, and so GOOD in her quirky early roles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I love her early roles the best. She was so great at playing the kook, while still being intelligent and strong.
      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the introduction to this film. The costumes look A-MAZ-ING!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy to introduce you! And yes, MacLaine's costumes are pretty awesome. I particularly love her white formal dress, but how can you really choose?

      Thanks for stopping by, as always!

      Delete
  3. Excellent choice of movie. "she reminds that it's her dress and her hair and she doesn't care if he likes it or not." That is not something you'll hear in many movies, then or now. Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine worked very well together.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They did indeed! This quirky movie fit both of them so well, and it thrills me that two of my favorite people worked together and stayed good friends. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete

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