Release Date(s)1966 (January 11, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
The 1960s produced a wealth of caper/heist films, among them Topkapi, The Italian Job, How to Steal a Million, and The Pink Panther. The genre methodically traces the elaborate planning and execution of daring robberies and often features major stars. Gambit, another heist picture of the period, stars Michael Caine, who had just won acclaim for his role in Alfie, and three-time Oscar nominee Shirley MacLaine.
In Hong Kong, cat burglar Harry Dean (Caine) explains to his partner in crime, Emile (John Abbott), how he plans to use Eurasian dancer Nicole (MacLaine) to help him steal a valuable relic from Middle Eastern businessman Shahbandar (Herbert Lom, the Pink Panther films), the richest man in the world. A lookalike for Shahbandar’s beloved deceased wife, Nicole will distract Shahbandar so Harry can case the apartment and execute the robbery.
MacLaine doesn’t says a word for the film’s first half hour. She keeps a poker face and ramrod posture, and looks ravishing in Jean Louis’ Oriental-inspired gowns. She is moved, like a chess piece, from country to country, location to location, a mute observer with no say in her own destiny. Subsequently we discover the reason for her robotic silence.
Harry’s foolproof plan doesn’t go smoothly. Pitfalls and unforeseen events force him to switch gears along the way. The clockwork plot he envisioned turns into a series of abrupt reversals and on-the-fly improvisations, with considerable bickering between Harry and Nicole, when the target turns out to be more shrewd and suspicious than anticipated.
Caine’s Harry, urbane, well-tailored, and personable, is the perfect con man. He has an easy manner and seems comfortable in Shahbandar’s aristocratic milieu. Caine’s Harry is the kind of con man one would have no trouble trusting.
MacLaine creates a sense of mystery in the early scenes, when she’s silent and aloof, appearing to be far more than a nightclub hoofer. With make-up emphasizing the somewhat Asian shape of her eyes and pale skin, she looks like a porcelain doll. Filmed often from a low angle to add stature, she commands the screen, even sans dialogue. This image shatters as soon as we see the real Nicole, a sharp-tongued, savvy young woman who aspires to a better life.
Director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure) has created an entertaining caper with two attractive stars. Though the on-screen chemistry between Caine and MacLaine is weak, the story is by turns suspenseful, funny, and clever. Writers Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent showcase both actors nicely and provide them with witty dialogue. Some judicious editing could have made this good movie even better, since some scenes go on too long and a few could have been cut entirely.
Gambit appeals on two levels: it’s a well-written heist film with scenes showing Harry getting past elaborate security features to seize his prize, and it’s a rom-com as Harry and Nicole’s relationship evolves from boss and hired hand to something deeper and more meaningful. The romantic slant, however, doesn’t work. Rather, it seems contrived to satisfy the convention of 20th-century Hollywood films in which male and female leads are destined to get together.
Gambit was shot by director of photography Clifford Stine on 35 mm film in Techniscope (a less expensive version of Panavision), finished photochemically, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, sourced from a new 4K restoration by Universal Pictures, is visually sharp with vibrant color. Detail is exceptional, with patterns in costumes, jewelry, nightclub dancers’ costumes, feather boas, flower arrangements, and gentle ocean waves nicely delineated. MacLaine wears dresses in bold colors: cherry red, buttery yellow, carnation pink, and alabaster white. Flesh tones are pleasant and especially flattering to MacLaine. Director Neame favors interesting camera movements that often travel on different levels. Actors and objects are positioned in interesting arrangements for the wide screen.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English subtitles. Clarity and sharpness are excellent. Dialogue is distinct throughout. Maurice Jarre’s score gives the film a jaunty, upbeat feel. Sound mixing in the nightclub scenes blends dialogue, ambient crowd noise, and the stage show, capturing the hustle-bustle of the environment. Silence is used effectively to build suspense when Harry attempts to get past heavy security to get to the sculpture. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound.
The disc sits inside a blue amaray case with reversible artwork: the front featuring a version of the original theatrical US poster, and the reverse featuring alternate artwork used for various promotional posters and other items around the world. Everything is housed in a slipcover featuring same same front cover artwork. Special features include the following:
- Archival Audio Commentary with Ronald Neame
- New Audio Commentary with Howard S. Berger, Sergio Mims, and Nathaniel Thompson
- Trailer (1:13)
- Two Mules for Sister Sara Trailer (2:36)
- The Ipcress File Trailer (3:07)
- Arabesque Trailer (3:30)
- Return from the Ashes Trailer (2:24)
- Impasse Trailer (2:16)
- The Pink Jungle Trailer (2:42)
- The 7th Dawn Trailer (2:55)
The first commentary features director Ronald Neame being interviewed. Neame says that, having watched the film recently, he would now cut 20 minutes out of it. He speaks about working with Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in Hollywood. In the original script, MacLaine’s character had dialogue throughout. It was MacLaine who proposed that suspense would be enhanced if her character had no dialogue in the early scenes. Neame talks about how good actors bring a lot to films and “always have wonderful suggestions.” A wise director will listen to them but must be both fair and in command. MacLaine’s eye make-up had to be readjusted every day, causing delays. Neame likes to make the camera invisible to the viewer, moving with the actors whenever possible and not calling attention to technique. TV changed this, making the camera the center of attention. In contemporary films, scenes are composed of many cuts rather than long takes.
Three film historians, Howard S. Berger, Sergio Mims and Nathaniel Thompson, share this new enthusiastic commentary. They note that the original script was lengthy at 130 pages and contained many more characters. They discuss the popularity of 1960s heist and caper films and note the writers’ other works. Jack Davies, in particular, wrote for many actors and was great with dialogue that pitted characters against expectations. The structure of the film is unique, as suggested by the film’s advertising line: “Go ahead. Tell the ending… but please don’t tell the beginning.” Shirley MacLaine had a lot of creative input, including approval of her leading man. The characters deceive others while also deceiving themselves. The film is “sharp, smart, impeccably made.”
In chess, a gambit is an opening in which a player makes a sacrifice in exchange for a compensating advantage. Gambit follows that strategy, basing its screenplay on intentional misdirection. Classy in look and style with exquisite costuming and lavish production design, it received Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Costume Design. The trio of Caine, MacLaine, and Lom contribute their considerable talents to a series of cat-and-mouse adventures in a clever heist thriller. The film bogs down in the middle, slowing the narrative momentum, but still holds one's attention. The 2014 remake starring Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz went straight to video, but the original is an enjoyable example of the 60s caper flick.
- Dennis Seuling