A Movie and a Book: “Gambit” (1966)

A Movie and a Book: “Gambit” (1966)
gambit (gám-bit) : a series of opening moves (esp. in chess); a strategy, planned before the actual game.

Gambit (1966) : crime caper starring Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Herbert Lom, and John Abbott.

Gambit (1966) : book by Kendall Lane; literary form of the story above.

Tonight’s movie was discovered, of all places, via a stack of vintage paperbacks in a used bookstore.  One of my hobbies is book collecting – second only to book reading, but mostly because of space and monetary limitations.  (Luckily for those of us who read far more than we could ever buy or keep, there are libraries.)  For the most part, I prefer to buy only books from tried-and-true authors, but I’ll bend this rule for gorgeous covers, intriguing blurbs, or anything old that looks like it might be hard to find elsewhere.  Or, as in this case, movie tie-in covers.gambit-pbcoverThis was supposed to be the first in what may be a recurring series, in which I read a book, watch the movie it was based on (or the other way ’round), and review both.  As it turns out, Gambit the movie is practically identical to Gambit the book.  There are a few very minor changes, and they really are minor.  Luckily, this totally works for this book/movie combination, so I’ll be reviewing the movie and adding a new notes on the book at the end.  They’re both solidly entertaining, and you needn’t worry about loving one and hating the other.

Gambit shares the 1960s romantic comedy-slash-heist movie genre with How to Steal a Million, released the same year (1966).  Frankly, How to Steal a Million is the superior film.  With Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, how could it not be?  Still, Gambit shouldn’t be dinged simply for not being Million: it was nominated for three Academy Awards, and it’s got a premise and twist all its own.  It’s also a little heavier on the suspense than the romance.

Bottom line:  If watching How to Steal a Million left you yearning for more romantic comedy heist movies, Gambit should be on your must-watch list.

This may be a fun movie to go into without spoilers, so if you’d like to do so, skip this review and head straight for your preferred rental service or DVD seller.  (It’s nearly impossible to talk about this movie without revealing a few twists.)  Still, I was spoiled on a major plot point from the beginning, read the book, then watched the movie, and enjoyed both just the same – if not more.  Proceed at your own risk. :)

“Harry Dean was a perfect genius, with the perfect scheme for the perfect crime.  All it required was a perfectly beautiful girl, with a heart of gold–and larceny.”

The setup:  A cheap nightclub, Hong Kong, 1966.  Enter Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and Emile Fournier (John Abbott).  Emile is an art dealer…of sorts.  Harry is a good-looking, shady type who’s done a little bit of everything, everywhere across the globe.  Both Emile and Harry share, to quote the book, “a genteel willingness to do almost anything for a (preferably tax-free) buck.”

Their latest plan, as outlined by Harry, is simple: steal a priceless marble bust of a Chinese empress, owned by reclusive Arab tycoon Shahbandar (“the richest man in the world”) – whose late wife was the exact image of the ancient statue.  Everything is prepared; all they need is a perfect lookalike to both the statue and the wife.  Enter one Hong Hong taxi dancer, Nicole (Shirley MacLaine), who just so happens to be the walking, talking replica they’re looking for.  Securing her cooperation should be a piece of cake.  From there, it’s off to the fictional Middle Eastern city of Dammuz, where the plan will unfold like clockwork.  This is one heist that’s engineered to come off.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, could go wrong.

Little does Harry know that it already has…


“And that’s the plan, Emile. Down to the very last detail.”

Because therein lies the beginning.  (Which the movie poster tagline says I shouldn’t tell you about.)  Thirty-odd minutes into the movie, we fade out on the scene of the crime, and find Harry and Emile back in that Hong Kong nightclub.  What you just watched was the strategy, played out in Harry’s imagination.

You know that you won’t be watching the same thing over again, but the characters sure don’t.  Murphy is about to strike.  As it turns out, Harry’s brilliant plan could have used a worst-case-scenario Plan B.  And possibly a Plan C.  Come to think of it, a Plan D wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either.


Nicole doesn’t say one single word during the unreeling of Harry’s brilliant plan.  (This closely follows the book, but the “mysterious lady” angle actually plays better in the movie, where it’s intriguing and not simply unbelievable.)  Nonetheless, she dominates nearly every scene, with her colorful exotic outfits, motionless poses, and graceful movements holding the center of attention, as the bland Harry – and anyone else who happens to be around – is relegated to part of the background.  This is exactly how Harry wants it.  She’s there as a decorative, useful object – in fact, the distraction in the sleight-of-hand trick he’s about to pull.

As the perfect pawn, she gazes fixedly ahead, or gently up and down, registering no visible reaction to anything.  She stands immobile in the hotel room, until the languidly newspaper-reading Harry gestures towards a seat: “Sit down, love, sit down.”  And then she half-reclines in a perfect pinup pose.  In the elevator, she looks straight ahead, inscrutable, as Harry and the hotel manager argue over a dropped cufflink.  The perfect marble statue come to life, the timeless empress.  She’s a complete nonentity, as far as Harry Dean is concerned.

Caine plays Harry Dean as smug as a Cheshire cat, if Cheshire cats had Cockney accents.  This makes it all the more satisfying when the “real-life” reel begins to play merry havoc with his carefully laid plans.

What makes it so funny is that Harry thinks he’s getting this:




When he’s actually getting this:


The real Nicole is a live wire, sharp as a tack, talkative, and prone to telling rambling stories about people she’s met.  She notices things.  She has a disconcerting effect on Harry, who doesn’t quite know how to adjust to this change in personalities.  The imaginary Nicole responds simultaneously with a move or gesture from Harry; it’s as if she instantly knows his intent, and moves accordingly.  (This is neat to watch, since it’s a subtle thing, but such a great example of defining a character by showing.)  In his plan, he strolls back to his table, the girl in tow.  The upshot is that the real Harry walks off without her, twice – first crooking his finger, then gesturing, both times realizing that she has not moved forward by telepathic force.  She’s baffled, he’s annoyed.


“Do I look like a crook?” “You do, a little…. Yep, you do. You DO look like a crook.”

Poor Harry has a few other surprises in store, too.  Did we mention that he’s pulling his information from a magazine article?  (In the book, it’s LIFE; in the movie, it’s the fictional Pictorial.)

"This magazine is 10 years old, Harry!"

“This magazine is 10 years old, Harry!”

Herbert Lom gives a spot-on performance as Shahbandar, the monocled billionaire pictured above – or should I say, both Shahbandars?  He’s eminently likable in both roles.  Harry pictures himself as a gifted conversationalist, condescending to chatter about trite subjects with this “recluse”.  In reality, Shahbandar has a neat trick of being able to hold a conversation on Picasso and Matisse instead of cricket and oil wells, and Harry is left gaping and nodding and hum-hawing…while Nicole picks up the slack.  Behold the “gullible mark” in action:


Watch also for character actor Robert Carmel as a hotel manager, and for Shirley MacLaine’s wardrobe of pseudo-Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, and other assorted Asian inspirations whirled in a Vitamix with 1960s American formalwear; the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.  It’s all brilliantly colorful, described in the book as “something Mainbocher might have run up for Scheherazade.”



Gambit‘s cinematography is intriguing: both stylish and furtive.  It’s shot from low angles, and from behind things: glass shelving, pottery, characters’ shoulders, windshields, pieces of furniture.  The camera is even almost shaky at times, as if it’s moving behind and following the person in the scene – especially in the beginning, and during the burglary itself.

For instance, the film opens with the credits superimposed over a busy Hong Kong street scene – not so different from many another cityscape that opens a movie.  We’re at street level, and a flash of green catches our eye – a woman walking ahead.  The bright color against the gray street is attention-grabbing; she must be important to the plot, so we watch her.  Suddenly, we discover that we’re following her, from behind a car windshield, slowing with the traffic, creeping along just behind, until she enters a doorway.  The woman, of course, is Nicole, and the doorway is to the nightclub.  It’s ever so slightly unsettling, but it does successfully put us in Harry’s POV, so necessary for those first thirty-odd minutes.


Gambit: The Book

The book has a slight edge on the movie by providing extra background material on the characters, which we miss in the film.  Harry Dean is brilliant (if sometimes dumb), and adapts to changing technical challenges at lightning speed.  He has a near-photographic memory, and his capacity for quick assessment and memorization of floor plans and escape routes is the reason he can even consider pulling off this heist.

Nicole’s character is a little more fleshed out in the book, and we get to see things from her angle.  The visual nature of film means that we’re watching her act the part that Harry has arranged, but in the written story, we’re privy to her thoughts beneath the facade.  The movie slightly favors the perspective of Harry Dean.  I was a little sorry to miss these parts, as the switch from “object and pawn” to “real person and active participant” was one of the most fun aspects of watching the gambit vs. the reality.

I’m not entirely sure which came first: the book or the screenplay.  The credits say “based on an original story by Sidney Carroll” (AKA the Kendall Lane of the cover), and I suspect that the book was released in conjunction with the movie, as opposed to being either a post-movie novelization or a book whose rights were purchased to make the film.  Or maybe it is a novelization.  It was surprisingly hard to dig up information about it.  Anyway, it’s a close match to the movie plot, and they’re both good fun.


And never fear, there are more plot twists to be discovered.  That Gambit title is relevant in more ways than one…



One thought on “A Movie and a Book: “Gambit” (1966)

  1. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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