Are you interested in a big time caper? What’s the score baby?
My three sons and I share sheer delight and joy in viewing a movie ‘for those who appreciate the finer things in life for free’ announces the voice on the 1966 trailer. This movie has become our family comedy favourite. We’ve lost track of how many times we have watched with joy, William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million, which is enhanced by a great musical soundtrack composed by John Williams.
This film is full of simply marvelous people, all of whom you grow excessively fond of as the film progresses. It has no sex or nudity and no violence, although it is full of laughs, visual shenanigans, great suspense, two gorgeous girls, a true-blue burglar, a lot of art lovers, a simply sensational Cezanne, a ‘great Van Gogh’, superb vintage Givenchy costume, classic Cartier jewellery, as well as many recognizable masterpieces of art, both traditional and contemporary.
There is also the added pleasure of psychological warfare and not too soppy romance.
This basically means it is suitable for the whole family to watch together, a tongue-in-cheek crime caper with two of the most delightful crooks you would ever wish to encounter.
How To Steal A Million was directed in 1966 by a master craftsman its director William Wyler. It starred Audrey Hepburn as the Givenchy clad fashionista Nicole Bonnet, daughter of a renowned art collector Charles Bonnet.
Her father is really an art forger who enjoys selling fakes of great works of art to rich people; so what can be wrong about that?
All the action takes place on location in the always glamorous and glorious city of beautiful boulevards and lovers, Paris.
The opening sequence is classic Audrey Hepburn, whom we all adored.
She is on her way home to a fabulous Beaux-arts style mansion built during the Belle Époque or beautiful era, that she and her father live in along with their faithful retainer Marcel, in a most beautiful suburb of Paris.
She is driving along one its most attractive boulevards with a view of Notre Dame in the background in a small quirky Autobianchi Bianchina Special Cabriolet wearing a knock out all-white Givenchy outfit.
Stopping at a traffic light, on the radio she hears about her father selling a ‘long lost’ Cezanne from his art collection at auction in Paris that day for a record price of over a half a million pounds, a lot of loot for that time. The stylish 60’s costume she is wearing includes one of those fabulous sixties helmet style hats disposed over an equally marvellous coat, with underneath a divine dress with a peplum, set off by white sheer silk stockings , white patent belt and matching low-heeled pumps with the piece de resistance being outrageously large white sunglasses.
Miss Bonnet and I are old friends. We used to shoot together.
An ever-captivating cheeky youthful Peter O’Toole played the true-blue English private detective and all round crime genius Simon Dermott.
He turns into a true blue chic society burglar just to help our darling Audrey out of considerable trouble. When we watch it, as one son and I did together again just recently, we still smile all the time and laugh out loud.
O’Toole has a great entry, his sensational clear baby true-blue eyes peering over the top of the gilded frame of a painting, reputedly by Vincent Van Gogh!
Audrey thinks he is stealing this work off the wall in her home in the middle of the night. She shoots and wounds him with an old blunderbuss removed from her father’s vintage weapon collection mounted on the staircase wall, not knowing it’s still loaded.
Don’t be such a baby, it’s only a flesh wound!
Happens to be my flesh.
For a burglar you’re not very brave, are you?
I’m a society burglar. I don’t expect people to rush about shooting me!
She patches up his ‘flesh wound’ in her nightie with a hastily donned tea towel to help keep the blood at bay, and then afterwards driving him in his classic e-type Jaguar, back to ‘The Ritz Hotel’.
She is still wearing her nightie, hastily covered by a hot-pink short coat and waring high black galoshes and as we delight in the scene and their banter together we are left in no doubt that this is a movie to be forever cherished.
Well, it was pitch dark and there he was.
Tall, blue eyes, slim, quite good-looking… in a brutal, mean way, Papa.
A terrible man!
Her father upon learning of her strange encounter asks her of she has been molested in any way by the tall fair-haired ruffian?
She utters the singular great line, ‘not much’.
What we all find out is that it is Simon Dermott’s job is to find out if Charles Bonnet is a forger or not, but Nicole does not know that at the time.
The cast was wonderfully chosen, the truly brilliant comedic duo of Hepburn and O’Toole are backed up by a great supporting cast, including old-time French charmer Charles Boyer as the esteemed art dealer de Solnay.
He has one of Claude Monet’s great paintings of water lilies at his garden in Giverny on the wall of his office behind him.
De Solnay has hired Dermott, because he suspects all along that Charles Bonnet is hoodwinking the whole world and having a great time doing it. He observes that his motive and profit for doing so is all about ego and simply getting away with robbing from the rich, although he’s not giving the money to the poor he’s keeping it all for himself !
What a conundrum.
Then there is a suitably marvelous and awesome manic American art lover Davis Leland played artfully by Eli Wallach, who is busy collecting art on de Solnay’s advice, supposedly just to help him relax.
He and Audrey have dinner at Maxim’s and then later on, just to save time so that she won’t keep Peter waiting when it’s time to pull off the caper, she becomes engaged to de Solnay and he gives her the biggest most blinding billiant Cartier diamond solitaire ring you’ve ever seen.
American millionaires must be all quite mad. Perhaps it’s something they put in the ink when they print the money.
However it is the much-acclaimed film, stage and television dramatic Welsh actor Hugh Griffiths (Academy award winning Sheik in Ben Hur) who entirely steals the show.
He’s Nicole’s eccentric entirely loveable forger father Charles Bonnet, complete with his very stylish gold plated drink tolley in tow.
I keep telling you, Papa, when you sell a fake masterpiece, that is a crime!
But I don’t sell them to poor people, only to millionaires.
Griffiths reveals his complete genius for light comedy in his brilliantly hidden secret forger artist’s attic, which is accessed through a 17th century armoire in his bedroom. Everyone loves a magic wardrobe.
‘You’re such a scoundrel’, says his daughter Nicole affectionately, as he so colourfully explains to her how he has just made his latest painting, a great Van Gogh seem entirely authentic.
Don’t you know that in his lifetime Van Gogh only sold one painting? While I, in loving memory of his tragic genius, have already sold two!
The so-called centrepiece of the Charles Bonnet Collection is a small sylph like statue called the Cellini Venus, reputedly as Charles Bonnet puts it, that has been carved by ‘an over-sexed Italian’.
He is talking about Benvenuto Cellini, a great Renaissance sculptor as well as goldsmith, painter, soldier and musician who lived in 16th century Italy and wrote a fabulous autobiography about his life and times.
It’s one of the reasons we know so much about the people and lifestyle during that period.
We find out that the sculpture was first exhibited just on a century ago and so we know it is not forged Charles Bonnet. So who has made it?
Bonnet allows the Venus to go on show at a great loan exhibition to be held in Grommet’s museum of art.
Then suddenly Nicole and her father are in a panic?
We find out that Professor Bauer, who is hired by museums all around the world to test fakes, is coming to test the Venus.
Nicole cannot let her much-adored father go to jail and so she enlists the help of Simon Dermott, because she believes he is an art thief. Off they go to case the joint, where they meet up with Director Grommet, who unashamedly boasting unwittingly tells them all about how her father’s great art work is protected, providing valuable information for our all new crime duo.
Why must it be this particular work of art?
You don’t think I’d steal something that didn’t belong to me, do you?
Excuse me, I spoke without thinking.
Nicole and Simon plan to meet up in the bar at The Ritz to plan the caper, where he is completely bowled over by how beautiful and mysterious Nicole looks in what surely be the most stunning of all the costumes that Hubert Givenchy ever made for the fabulous Audrey Hepburn.
She is wearing a superb black Chantilly lace dress* with black lace silk stockings and a matching black lace mask entirely covering the upper half of her face, with the heavily tinsel laden eyelids of her wonderful dark eyes glinting brilliantly behind it.
It’s a triumph of couture design that every girl in the world would kill to own and it seduces him entirely into helping her. So he hatches a simple and entirely brilliant plan to steal the Venus back. However before he does he wants to know why and she won’t tell him so he says he will have to decline.
Oh don’t you dare cry!
I”m not I’ve got something in my eye!
There’s nothing wrong with your eye.
You’re crying to try and soften me up.
It’s not true! It won’t work. I’m too tough!
He naturally capitulates and Simon and Nicole spend much of the film having a close encounter of the personal kind while being enclosed in a closet at the museum, where they are busy carrying out the crime of the century.
Okay, you’re the boss. Just do as I tell you.
They set off a new sensor alarm protecting the sculpture in an awesome way and completely confuse the bewildered guards and vanloads of police, who arrive each time it happens.
The alarm is so loud it upsets the museum’s neighbours, who include high-ranking government officials. In the end the guards turn it off, which as Simon explains is a normal human reaction, allowing our delightful ‘robbers’ to remove it.
Playing her part Audrey is called upon to give Givenchy a ‘night off’, donning the garb of a cleaning lady.
There is a great deal more to the plot and it keeps you in both suspense and delight as the romp continues along its merry way. The script contains some now classic lines and it’s all very great fun.
The ensemble cast must have all enjoyed having a ‘wonderful crime’ together as Nicole and Simon pull of this charming caper.
In lesser roles, but certainly wonderful casting is Belgium’s Fernand Gravey as Monsieur Grommet the Museum Director, Australian born American actor Bert Bertram as Marcel the Bonnet family retainer and, Israel born citizen of the world Marcel Dalio as Senor Paravideo, a very excitable South American art loving gentleman who wants to buy Bonnet’s ‘great Van Gogh’.
Jacques Marin is the frustrated Chief Guard of the museum with French comedian Moustache as one of his underlings.
All of them help Hepburn and O’Toole by providing moments of light relief that add up to what is a very pleasing whole.
The film was so much of its time, that to re-make it today would seem sacrilege, because modern technology and the art of forensic science would dobb them both in immediately and see them put away in the clink for good.
Instead he hopes that he has convinced his father in law after they get away with it, one of them has to retire.
I tossed a coin on the way over. *You* lost.
The movie retains its contemporary feel because William Wyler was at the forefront of film innovation at the time, the clothes are very ‘in’ right now so it should prove great fun for young fashionistas and, it was shot in Panavision and De Luxe colour so it looks sumptuous.
This is vintage Hepburn style and O’Toole at his most delightful. Their chemistry together was very special.
The film ends with Simon and Nicole leaving Paris to avoid going to prison. We find out that are to be married and reside in a place where they can enjoy the good life. Everyone loves a happy ending, especially after a complete charmer like this.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012
How To Steal A Million 
Directed by William Wyler
Writers: George Bradshaw (story) and Harry Kurnitz (screenplay)
Original Music by John Williams
Miss Hepburn’s Costume by Givenchy
Miss Hepburn’s Jewellery by Cartier
Miss Hepburn’s Hair by Alexandre
Audrey Hepburn – Nicole Bonnet
Peter O’Toole – Simon Dermott
Hugh Griffith – Charles Bonnet
Eli Wallach – Davis Leland
Charles Boyer – DeSolnay
Fernand Gravey – Grammont
Marcel Dalio – Paravideo
Jacques Marin – Head of Security
Roger Tréville – Auctioneer
Edward Malin – Insurance Clerk (as Eddie Malin)
*The black lace dress was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2009 for $97,000
Vale, Peter O’Toole