Impossible to resist the charms of How to Steal a Million ‹ CrimeReads
My first exhibition at How to steal a million, William Wyler’s 1966 hug movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, was via an anecdote. I was at a party at a professor’s house in September of my senior year in college, chatting with some grad students when one of them brought up what she thought was the sexiest moment in the history of the cinema, the scene in how to steal a million where the characters of Audrey and Peter first meet, when he steals a painting from her house in the dead of night and she catches it. He freezes and lowers the frame he’s holding, staring at her the whole time. “When he see her on the painting he is carrying! Those blue eyes!” But that was quickly challenged with another moment: “The broom closet scene! In the museum! arm.”I’d be stuck in a closet with Peter O’Toole,” she offered. “Right?” Everyone nodded again.
how to steal a million had streamed on Netflix, and later that night I decided to see what the grad students were talking about. One hundred and twenty-three minutes later, I had become how to steal a millionis the new believer. Positively evangelical, I dragged three friends to my apartment and sat them down in front of my laptop to watch. They too quickly converted.
It’s not just that we were impressed by the palpable sparks between Audrey Hepburn’s disapproving protagonist and intruding art thief Peter O’Toole. That was all. Never had a movie made me feel quite like that; it wasn’t just the magnetic love story tugging at the sentimentality inside of me, it was the whole thing, the whole happy thing. Thus, I open this essay with an anecdote because it is impossible for me to think of the film without thinking of the first week I heard about it, the first night I saw it, the feeling that I had in my heart when I saw it. At the time, I was thinking about the end of Giuseppe Tornatore Cinema Paradiso, in which our (now older) filmmaker protagonist watches a reel of intimate scenes from old movies that had been censored of their respective hallmarks at the theater where he grew up: a montage of passionate hugs, goofy kisses, and passionate kisses. He watches them, alone in the room, bewitched, smiling – and thus the film crystallizes its main theme, that of falling in love with cinema.
Watching how to steal a million, even via my laptop, sitting on my twin-xl dorm bed, I fell in love, I felt in love. I’ve always been in love with movies since I was little and started watching goofy 30s comedies with my parents and grandparents, but I was long out of the moon era honey. My love for cinema had become a routine, part of my daily life. how to steal a million marked a return to that feeling. I felt transported. I felt fireworks. I felt happy. I was laughing – big giddy laughs and not because anything was so funny or stupid, but because it all made me so thrilled, so charmed and so surprised.
how to steal a million is a perfect little antics film set in Paris in the spring. The film, which is set to a playful score by an early-career John Williams, is about a young woman, Nicole Bonnet (Audrey, endlessly decked out in Givenchy), who disapproves of her jolly father Charles’ penchant for counterfeiting. of art. Charles (Hugh Griffith, all eyebrows) is an impeccable imitator of the Grand Masters, and makes a lot of money selling them, but when he lends a priceless statue, “the Venus Cellini”, forged by his own father to the Kléber-Lafayette Museum (played by Musée Carnavalet) for an exhibit, he discovers that the statue will need to be examined in order for it to receive its mandatory $1 million insurance protection. Knowing that an examination will reveal her family’s long history of art crime, Nicole decides she must steal it from the museum, one way or another. Only, since she hadn’t been interested in a criminal lifestyle until now (rejecting her father’s tainted money, she has a full-time job, although you never know what that is) , she needs help in this regard. Worse still, American magnate and art collector named Davis Leland (Eli Wallach) has become obsessed with acquiring the statue and will stop at nothing to try to own it (including wooing Nicole).
Knowing she doesn’t have much time to steal the statue, Nicole turns to Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), a suave cat burglar she finds prowling her family’s Paris mansion one night. She thinks only he can engineer the perfect museum heist, and though he’s less sure, he’s already fallen in love with her and so is determined to do his best. What unfolds is one of the most clever heist sequences put to cinema, a plot so intricate, meticulous and stunning that it would be hard to imagine Nicole, buttoned up and anxious, not being impressed to have the time of his life.
The grad students were right about O’Toole’s steamy entrance, sparking a cat-and-mouse love affair that fuels the entire film. Nicole is reading in bed while her father is attending the museum party to celebrate the loan of the Venus Cellini when she hears a noise downstairs. She bends down on her tiptoes, in a pink negligee, her hair still in her perfect pageboy trick, and sees a man in a tuxedo manhandling an executive holding her father’s forged Van Gogh. She grabs an antique gun from the wall and aims it. The camera captures a very close up of his blue eyes above the wooden painting frame, and then grabs her whole face after slowly lowering the paint.
The camera deliberately captures how striking it is, how elegant it is. Gently lowering the painting from his face to his chest, one frame (the wooden one) reveals to another (the camera one) that he is wearing a tuxedo. It’s almost a kind of striptease. There is a fascination, an intriguing element in discovering her elegant presentation, an artistry in her own appearance that finds compliment in Nicole – the object of her gaze as we watch. Nicole, whose wardrobe consists of patterned stockings and pastel suits, giant glasses and lace masks with no eye holes, is also almost always overdressed, equally frame-worthy for her gorgeous looks and interesting.
Simon and Nicole, from their clothes to their cars, bring superfluous fashion to their daily activities (including, possibly, activities that will require them to look as understated as possible). But this film takes place in Paris, a city for which superfluous fashion is the daily bread. Although he barely explores Paris (in reality, the film sets are limited to Nicole’s house, the Ritz Hotel, the Museum and the streets between them), the world of how to steal a million is as quaint as a city can get, pastel and shimmering in spring days and nights. But Paris doesn’t have to do too much work; the film is mostly interior shots, which leaves Hepburn to be our stand-in for city glamour. Hubert de Givency made all of his clothes, and Simon even jokingly references the designer about his wardrobe; of all the art of film, the Parisian Nicole is the only real article. While she chases a statue of a woman (by the way, her grandmother, who had modeled her), Simon chases the equivalent in flesh and blood.
Perhaps it’s because the film marries this dreamy, elegant, romantic imagery with the undeniable chemistry of O’Toole and Hepburn in a heist movie plot that I enjoyed it so much when I saw it for the first time and quickly became determined to proselytize on behalf of the film. I worry at all about describing Simon’s plot, because its slow unfolding (another of the movie’s pseudo-stripteases) is so alluring and gripping. But like the film’s sartorial and visual flair, it’s both tedious and over the top, a confluence of flamboyance and conservatism at one of Nicole’s form-fitting lavender suit dresses.
Through, how to steal a million plays with the balances between flair and conservatism, show and concealment, falsehood and sincerity, peeling away layers of himself to reveal, instead of a state of nudity, more complex works of art in below. The film is about the constant unfolding, the constant teasing of all of its related plots, of all of its schemes. Just as Simon only undertakes the robbery of the museum because he is in love with Nicole, it could also reasonably be said that Nicole crafted his request in a specific way that allows him to spend more time with Simon. But amid the film’s ubiquitous counterfeiting, Nicole and Simon’s shrewd machinations and devious crimes are just one way to uncover the truth. What for them is love, and for us also love.