How to Steal a Million

How to Steal a Million. 20th Century Fox 1966.
How to Steal a Million. 20th Century Fox 1966.

Before watching the movie:

The stars are the headline for this movie. Peter O’Toole is no doubt a scoundrel with class and Audrey Hepburn brings glamour with… playfulness? I’m not as familiar with her type as I should be.

This appears to be a story of an unlikely pairing of people who never expected to be art thieves. Something to do with an art forger who gives his master forgery to an art museum, presumably meaning these two decide to steal it back. I’m predicting a clumsy, snarky heist, but I recognize I’ve built a lot of preconceptions on top of what little I actually know.

After watching the movie:

Aristocratic art enthusiast Monsieur Bonnet uses his vast wealth to buy priceless works of art in the public space of the auction houses, and his vast leisure time studying the Masters to paint forgeries in the privacy of his attic, which he occasionally sells to collectors with too much money on their hands. His daughter Nicole wishes he wouldn’t, but helps maintain the fiction, even as Bonnet’s audacity reaches new heights by lending her grandfather’s faked Cellini sculpture to a major Paris museum. Late one night, when everyone else is out, Nicole catches a “high-society burglar” named Simon absconding with one of her father’s fake Van Goghs and, after accidentally shooting him, dressing his wound, and driving him back to his hotel, lets him go rather than involve the police. When the museum informs Bonnet and Nicole that the Cellini will be authenticated as an insurance formality, Bonnet believes himself ruined, but Nicole realizes she knows just the man to get it out of its high security display before it can be inspected.

I have to admit I overlooked the part in the description where the forger was described as the father to Hepburn’s character, and initially pictured O’Toole as a forger turned thief. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how Hepburn got involved, but I did wonder why it became important to steal the fake out of the museum, which is addressed. An art forger having to steal his own work out of a museum is a slightly more interesting idea than presented here, but there’s still plenty of wit and snarky romantic tension, so the reality is still better than the broad strokes I imagined. The heist is amateur and simplistic by today’s standards, but far from clumsy. The original Ocean’s Eleven was smoother, but simpler.

Although the story is set in Paris and most of the characters are French, the only French actors (or at least French accents) are guards and law enforcement. All of the French main characters speak in English accents, there’s one American mid-level character, and I think Simon is meant to be English as well as perhaps one or two other minor named characters. This is fairly common and not immediately noticeable to an American audience, but the inclusion of French actors on the side of the law was an interesting choice, particularly because I recognized the head guard as Jacques Marin, whom I know from playing the same basic type in Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo, another story involving a museum theft. Apparently he was also in Charade, but I don’t remember much beyond the basics of that film.

As I said, the main reason I was interested was for O’Toole and Hepburn, and their relationship. It’s not as snappy as I expected, but it is every bit as witty and snarky as I hoped. They’re antagonistically flirty as they warm up to each other, and both of them are pleasant to look at, which is not squandered. It’s the kind of relationship that seems like it’s going to fall apart a week after the credits roll, but they’re just too much fun together on screen to get too bothered by that.

“Witty art con” seems to be becoming an unusual new favorite kind of movie. I’m not terribly interested in gallery art itself, but the culture around it is great as a canvas for intelligent jokes about shady dealings. I recall I enjoyed The Horse’s Mouth, and I greatly want to see Dick Van Dyke in The Art of Love, although I expect art licensing is going to keep it out of distribution indefinitely. It’s certainly a flavor I should explore, and this is certainly a prime example.

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