Peter O'Toole as Simon Dermott.
How to Steal a Million (1966) may be one Audrey Hepburn's most underrated films. This is crazy to me. Directed by William Wyler, located in Paris, and starring a terrific cast that includes Peter O'Toole, Eli Wallach, Hugh Griffith, and Charles Boyer, How to Steal a Million is a marvelous romantic comedy. Who doesn't want to see Audrey traipsing around Paris in gorgeous Givenchy with gorgeous O'Toole by her side?
When I first saw this movie, I figured I knew what I was in for. There was one factor I wasn't counting on, though: the leading man. Peter O'Toole wasn't a new name to me. I mean, when you became a classic film devotee, one of the first ones you become aware of is Lawrence of Arabia. However, I had never seen O'Toole in action before and let me tell you something... How to Steal a Million is a great introduction to him. Did it give him a chance to show off his versatile range, his dramatic talent, his monumental sensitivity? Well, not quite. But it does illustrate just how handsome, witty, fun, and brilliant O'Toole was. Drama may be hard, but I'm much more interested in the actors who can do comedy with a light touch and a wicked grin.
From the very first moment I saw O'Toole as Simon Dermott, I was in love. Let me set up his introductory scene for you. Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) is a wealthy man who finds joy in forging paintings from great artists and ultimately selling them. His daughter, Nicole (Hepburn), is more honest and just wants to see her father go on the straight and narrow. While home alone one night, Nicole is reading in bed when she hears a noise. (Her book? A compilation of mysteries chosen by Alfred Hitchcock! It's
doubtful Hitch really picked these stories, but hey, the man was a publicity genius. This is also the only instance of Hepburn and Hitch "working" together, for those of us who mourn their collaboration that never was.) In the shadows downstairs, a man is sneaking around until he finds a Van Gogh replicate that Bonnet made. The man's inspection of the painting is interrupted when Nicole turns on the light and points the only weapon she could find at him, an antique gun. Our first look at Simon is striking:
Those eyes. Those beautiful, stunningly blue eyes. And then he starts talking in the loveliest British accent, with one clever thing after another rolling off his tongue. Realizing that she can't call the police because it would bring unwanted attention to the fake Van Gogh, Nicole decides that Simon is harmless enough and she lets him go. Unfortunately (who are we kidding, it's totally fortunate), when she places the gun on a table, it goes off and Simon is nicked in the arm.
The poor man faints at the sight of his own blood and he is less than thrilled when Nicole applies iodine to the cut. "Don't be such a baby. It's only a flesh wound," she remarks. "It happens to be my flesh," he sniffs. What is amazing is that Simon charms his way into receiving more generosity from Nicole, from bumming a cigarette to getting a ride back to his hotel because he is "weak from shock and loss of blood."
It isn't that Nicole has fallen head over heels for this guy -- she just feels guilty for shooting him. However, the connection between Hepburn and O'Toole is so superb that you're begging Nicole to keep helping this mysterious stranger. Unlike me, she doesn't feel starry-eyed around Simon. She points out that he says the wrong arm hurts ("The infection is spreading!" he quips) and when he asks her to wipe his fingerprints from the painting's frame, she stares at him in disbelief and states "You're mad, utterly mad." It isn't until Simon surprises her with a kiss that she lets her guard down. She is so dazed, in fact, that Simon has to put her into her taxi and give the driver her address.
Nicole's adventures with Simon are just beginning, thanks in part to her father. His latest scheme involves loaning a Cellini sculpture to one of the city's museums. The problem is the Cellini is actually a fake; Nicole's grandfather made it and her grandmother posed for it. After discovering that the sculpture will be heavily inspected for insurance purposes, Nicole gets the idea to enlist the services of the only burglar she knows to retrieve the piece. Their meeting at the Ritz bar is simply incredible. Thinking she needs to dress the part of a femme fatale-in-training, Nicole is divine in a chic black ensemble, complete with a lacy eye mask and shimmering silver eye makeup. Simon almost doesn't recognize her, but when he does, the mixture of confusion, awe, and attraction on his face is priceless:
Nicole is trying to be all business, but Simon would much rather poke fun at her seriousness. Speaking with a 1940's voice out of the side of his mouth, he asks "What's the score, baby?" When he hears that the heist is at the museum, he immediately drops the silly voice and says "Ah, I'm out." However, both characters have a hold on each other, although neither would admit it outright. Nicole refuses to explain why she wants to steal something she already owns, but reluctantly Simon begins hatching a plan anyway, which starts with casing the joint. Staring at the Cellini, the resemblance between the sculpture and Nicole strikes Simon as something curious. "Where exactly were you in the early part of the 16th century?" he teasingly asks. Later, after dragging Nicole all around Paris as he thinks, he imitates Humphrey Bogart with a few mouth twitches and a "How do you like being a gangster's moll, baby?"
The next night, as we watch Simon's plan unfold, we see how extremely smart he is. Every step he takes is ingenious and we can't help but mirror Nicole as she gasps with admiration. The best part of this sequence, though, is the teeny tiny closet our duo has to squeeze into to hide from the guards, resulting in one of my very favorite cinematic shots. Does it get any better than this?
As the night progresses, Simon admits that he knows the Cellini isn't authentic; he has known ever since she first asked for his help! Nicole is dumbfounded. "But if you knew the thing was worthless, why--?" Before she can finish her sentence, Simon gives her another knee-weakening kiss. "That's why?" she breathlessly asks. "I'm so stupid! Explain it to me again." They share another kiss and we cut to some time later. Although still in the closet, Nicole is now sitting on Simon's lap, marveling that "It's funny how roomy it's suddenly become in here!" "We're adjusting to our environment," Simon dryly remarks. When he has to leave
their cozy little room to execute the next part of his scheme, he puts his finger to Nicole's lips, explaining that he is "just marking my place." Swoon.
As if Simon wasn't already perfect enough, he can't believe it when his own plan works. How adorable is that? Nicole and the audience soon learn why Simon is so surprised at his excellent burglary skills -- he isn't a real thief! He is actually a private detective who specializes in art and forgeries, as well as a special security consultant to museums all over Europe. In the end, we recognize Simon as an honest and decent man. He finds the best way to get rid of the Cellini, without taking any money for it despite its million-dollar worth, and he forces Nicole's father into retirement. With incredible finesse, Simon takes care of every problem that the Bonnets have.
When I think of my ideal man, I basically think of Simon. He has a dazzling sense of humor and a magnificent car. I'm honestly delighted by every single thing he does. Effortlessly cool, phenomenally intelligent, and secretly a teddy bear on the inside, Simon Dermott is the best partner in crime you could ask for. Maybe I need to convince my dad to start forging paintings...
This is my contribution to the fabulous Reel Infatuation Blogathon, a dedication to cinematic crushes. You can (and should!) check out all of the wonderful entries here.