As the music and movie industries crack down on illegal file-sharing, it is amusing to watch How to Steal a Million, which shrugs off the crime of art forgery in the name of love. Art forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) lends a prestigious French museum a fake of Cellini’s Venus, whereupon his daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) hires the handsome rogue thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) to steal it back before an insurance inspection will reveal the statue to be counterfeit. Little does she know, Simon is actually a detective, looking to verify that statue is indeed a fake.
None of the characters are particularly ethical. Though Nicole admonishes her father for his deception of innocent people, she also enjoys driving around in sporty coupes and wearing fabulous Givenchy outfits. While Bonnet sees himself as an artist, longing for an appreciative audience, his palatial home, complete with baroque furniture, indicates otherwise. And when Simon enters the picture, it doesn’t take much (a few batted eyelashes and Hepburn in a nightie) for him to overlook her father’s crimes in his pursuit of romance.
When at last Simon comes clean about his identity he verbally strong-arms Bonnet into giving up forgery altogether. This is particularly well-crafted scene in which Simon laces his seemingly innocuous request with delicious amount of venom to politely, but effectively, disarm Bonnet. However, just as Nicole and Simon are set to drive off into the sunset, an art collector with an outrageous “Latin” accent shows up at the Bonnet’s door, interested in a fake Van Gogh. It seems piracy is okay as long as you can acknowledge that it’s wrong. I guess it doesn’t hurt if you have a daughter who can distract law enforcement, either.
But the plot is hardly the point here. One of William Wyler’s last films, and his second with Hepburn (the first was Roman Holiday), How to Steal a Million finds the director displaying his knack for sophisticated comedy. This task is made slightly easier with tremendously gifted cast he assembled. Though the script, by Harry Kurnitz, takes too many digressions (the unfunny subplot involving Eli Wallach as Nicole’s potential suitor is unnecessary), it is a credit to the actors that the film remains engaging. O’Toole is thoroughly delightful, debonair and dashing while showing a fantastic gift for comedy. And Hepburn, well, she’s Hepburn.
How to Steal a Million is the first ever released in Panavision. The director and his cinematographer, Charles Lang, make the most of the new technology. While most of the settings here are interiors, the shots never feel confined. Spacious compositions, particularly in the Bonnet home and in the museum, seem almost to expand the opulence of Paris, or at least to punctuate it. Each scene thus emphasizes the grandeur of being fashionable and wealthy in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, not to mention shooting on location.
This very splendor makes it slightly sad that Wyler’s daughter Catherine, who provides the bulk of the DVD’s commentary, makes no mention of Panavision or her father’s thoughts on the process. Focusing on his career rather than offering any specific insight into this film, she focuses on mostly well-known details. Eli Wallach also comments occasionally on a separately recorded track, concerning his experiences on the film, but his memories are mostly nostalgic, rarely specific about technical or performance decisions.
Still, this superficial treatment reflects the film’s own breezy sense of privilege and casual observation concerning its subject matter. It’s difficult to criticize How to Steal a Million for any lack of moral consistency. Wyler’s film doesn’t teach lessons, but instead displays the fun to be had by mixing Hollywood glamour with a lightweight caper and the City of Lights.