Gambit (1966) ****

The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development  In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.

Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.

Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.

After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.

In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky  English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.

What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.

As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.

What the Exhibitor Did

Movie studio publicity teams bombarded exhibitors with gimmicky promotions via the Pressbooks used to publicize movies. Some of the ideas were so outlandish it is easy to imagine that exhibitors’ eyes glazed over at the prospect.

But that would be to misunderstand the character of the cinema manager/owner on the 1960s. They often referred to themselves as “showmen” (ignore the gender slip) because they saw themselves as hustlers of the old school, required to come up with all sorts of schemes to ensure moviegoers were aware of what was showing.

So they weren’t short of coming up with their own ideas.  To promote Billy Wilder comedy The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, Loews State in New Orleans set up a replica three-room apartment within the Hurwitz-Minze furniture store in the city. A female model was hired to live there for a week during opening hours. She cooked, washed dishes, watched television and listened to records. “Her daytime routine was complete even to changing her clothes – behind a screen, of course.” The store advertised her presence daily and explained why there was model in the window. The Monteleone Hotel joined in the promotion by providing the model with free accommodation.

Handcuffs were handed out to customers going in to see Psycho (1960) at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York, on the basis that it would be advantageous for patrons to handcuff themselves to their seats in case nerves got the better of them and they tried to dash out before the end.

Of course, that was a long way from offering patrons a dead body, raffled off in the intermission between the movies on a midnight horror program, as carried out by the Super 422 Drive-In in Pittsburgh. A dead body was given away – it just turned out to be a turkey.

Exhibitors pushing a horror picture might plant a coffin in the lobby – more effective if there was a hand sticking out – or, as indicative of the terrors that lay ahead, have a white-coated nurse prominently positioned or park an ambulance outside. Certificates of bravery might be issued to attendees.

To promote Macumba Love (1960) – starring Ziva Rodann from The Giants of Thessaly – which featured cannibals and shrunken heads, Loews State in Cleveland put their own shrunken head on display in the lobby behind reducing glass which made it seem even smaller.   

Love takes people the strangest places. Two cycling enthusiasts planning to get married were persuaded by Twentieth Century Fox to travel from New York to Juneau, Alaska, a mere 4,776 miles to promote john Wayne picture North to Alaska (1960).They were paid, of course, and had the honor of being married by the Governor of the state, William Egan. They passed through a hundred towns and cities, stopping off to talk to interested media about their unusual adventure and, in case anyone missed the point, their bikes were plastered with publicity material for the film.

SOURCES: “The Midnight Show,” Box Office, Aug 1, 1960, p64-65; “Girl Keeps House in Window for a Week Prior to Opening of The Apartment,” Box Office, Aug 8, 1960, 118; “Handcuffs Go to Patrons in Advance of Psycho,” Box Office, Oct 3, 1960, 103; “Couple in Bicycle Trip North for To Alaska,” Box Office, Nov 14, 1960, 73.