Audrey Hepburn is one of my all-time favorite actresses. Her filmography wasn’t as long as some peoples’ (only thirty-four film credits), but she had good taste in movies, and must have been going for quality over quantity. I’ve seen a good number of her films, but until the Shame List, not How To Steal A Million. Released today in 1966, the film was directed by William Wyler and is a real joy.
The movie starts with an art auction in Paris, where a Cezanne painting is for sale by the Charles Bonnet family. It’s such a prestigious occasion that Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) himself stands up and takes a bow. This crowd is too sophisticated to raise paddles–all they have to do is wave a hand or crook a finger. Heaven forbid anyone sneezes.
Later on, an elegant young lady, Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) zooms through the Paris streets in a snazzy red Cabriolet, and hears on the radio about the Cezanne painting going for $515,000. Aghast, she drives home and goes to find her dad, who just so happens to be Charles Bonnet. The Bonnet family are not only an art dealer family, but Charles paints as well.
Except…Nicole has to climb through a secret passage in an armoire and up a spiral staircase to get to her dad’s art studio. And the Bonnet family aren’t art dealers, but dealers in designer imposters. Charles Bonnet is currently working on a copy of Van Gogh’s signature that is impossible to tell from the real deal.
Nicole doesn’t like her family’s trade. She’s all set to lecture her dad about it when they hear police sirens, but wonder of wonders, they’re not there to arrest her dad, but to pick up what they think is Cellini’s Venus from the Bonnet drawing room. This piece is so important that the Kléber-Lafayette Museum where it will be exhibited not only sent a police escort, but people line the streets to watch the procession pass. Priests take off their hats. Police salute. It’s almost as if a head of state were going by.
Meanwhile, back at the house, Nicole cautions her dad about the new tests experts can perform on art pieces to determine authenticity. Even sculpture can be found out by sniffing the air for potassium argon. Charles reassures Nicole that her grandmother posed for this Venus and no one will be the wiser. Nicole isn’t so sure.
While Charles is at the opening of the Venus exhibition, Nicole is at home in bed reading a Hitchcock magazine when she hears noises downstairs. She grabs her dad’s old pistol and then heads to the living room, where she finds a guy trying to steal the (fake) Van Gogh. His name’s Simon McDermott (Peter O’Toole) and he calls himself a “society burglar.” Nicole is about to call the police, but then thinks better of it because she suspects Simon knows the Van Gogh is a fake.
Simon’s not a mean fella, and he even hangs the painting back up for her. Nicole just tells him she’s going to let him go when she sets the gun down on a table and it accidentally goes off, grazing Simon’s arm. Naturally, the least Nicole can do is clean Simon’s wound and then drive him back to the Hotel Ritz, which is where he’s staying. As if that weren’t enough, Simon gets Nicole a cab and then kisses her, after which Nicole goes off in a daze.
Nicole is really afraid that people are onto what her dad is doing, and as it turns out, they are, but not in the way she thinks. She goes to dinner with Leland Davis (Eli Wallach), who only wants the Venus and giddily sees her as a means to an end. As for Simon, he knew all the time that the Bonnet Van Gogh was fake, and he asks the head of the Kléber, DeSolnay (Charles Boyer) about it. DeSolnay tells him Charles Bonnet learned about art by copying it. However, no one in the art world cares because the public doesn’t know the difference.
What really makes Nicole and Charles freak out is when they find out the Venus is going to be tested for authenticity. Nicole gets the bright idea to steal it from the Museum, and who better to help her than her good-looking burgler friend, Simon?
Simon’s a wee bit confused as to why Nicole wants help stealing a sculpture that belongs to her family and will be coming back to her family very soon. “Why not wait and steal it then?” he asks. Still, he goes along, and he proves to be the MacGyver type–opening locked janitor’s closets from the inside and using a boomerang to set off an alarm. He also proves to be irresistible to Nicole and vice versa, which is a good thing, because the two of them find themselves in close quarters on more than one occasion.
How To Steal A Million is a lot of fun. It’s got slight hints of camp, but it’s camp that works. The film has lots of twists and surprises, and the script is well-written. It’s also got shades of self-deprecation, such as in the scene when Simon has Nicole dress like a cleaning lady: “Give Givenchy the night off.” Givenchy was the costume designer on the film, of course, and one of Audrey’s favorites. I can see why she liked him, because her wardrobe was always fabulous, and they were really good friends as well.
All in all, this film is a wonderful two hours. I don’t know why I waited so long to see it, but I’m really glad I did.
That does it for this installment in the Shame List. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you tomorrow for the Winter In July Blogathon!
This film is available to own from Amazon.