Though William Wyler’s “How to Steal a Million” makes the pretense of being about a million dollar art heist, what it’s really about is Audrey Hepburn looking chic in Givenchy and Peter O’Toole mouthing the derivative bon mots of which Harry Kurnitz’ screenplay is entirely comprised, all the while attempting to simultaneously look suave and giving the impression his prodigious talent isn’t slumming. Though Hepburn seems comfortably in her element here (her swan-like neck has seldom seemed as elegantly posed), O’Toole looks more than a bit awkward attempting to assume a Cary Grant posture and his performance feels forced as if conveying to the audience that he’s aware the material is harmlessly trivial: the type of pseudo-sophisticated movie junk food that in more genteel days used to be called a “romp”.
Finding that her art forger father Charles Bonnet (a delightfully immoral Hugh Griffith straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon, and the best thing in the film) is in danger of exposure due to a insurance authenticity test on a Cellini Venus statuette which has carelessly allowed to be displayed as the centerpiece in a major exhibit in Paris’ Kléber-Lafayette Museum, daughter Nicole enlists the aid of the same art burglar, Simon Dermott (O’Toole), she has inadvertently shot while he was attempting to lift a Van Gogh painting (also a fake) from over the living room mantle. The bulk of the film incorporates the pair’s planning and execution of a rather farfetched (though amusing in its simplicity) scheme involving magnets, a scrub woman’s outfit and a toy boomerang, with a serious detour involving the burgeoning romantic attraction between the partners in crime: an affair of great convenience since great pains are taken to make the couple the most glamorous people in the room, with the rest of the cast made to look generally buffoonish (Hepburn’s romantic choices seem limited between the widescreen sparkle of O’Toole’s baby blues or Eli Wallach’s fidgety bulldog sweatiness) and professionally inept, with much of the humor deriving from poking fun at the actual inefficiency of even the most complex security arrangements especially with the aid of a script which resists the interruption of the chic sophistication with anything as mundane as unforeseen monkey wrenches in the robbery (the plan isn’t all that clever and it’s a cheat that its flaws aren’t exploited to comic or tension building effect) that might generate any real suspense or offer an even momentary distraction away from the fact that the real point of the film is to show off how damnably cute and sophisticated it’s all supposed to be; a similar blandness that crept into Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief”, a sibling cinematic bauble which sacrificed the darker side of criminality in favor of the fashionably coiffed.
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