A faded ruin seen in twilight can be a beautiful sight. Time, decay, and benign neglect don’t usually show a monument to its best advantage, but if she is structurally sound and inherently lovely “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety” (to quote Will S.). Filmed at a time when Hollywood as the natives knew her was thought to be on life support, William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million was made while pieces of the great studio system fell around it like a burning building.
The old gal hadn’t quite stopped breathing in 1966. Studio-backed films such as The Bible, The Sand Pebbles and Hawaii still pulled in big bucks at the box office, but change was imminent. Cary Grant made his last movie, Walk Don’t Run, that year and hard on Hollywood’s heels was a leaner, meaner, grittier international product that was all the buzz. Alfie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Georgy Girl and Blow Up were the anti-Hollywood “in” films to see. Blast-from-the-past directors like Alfred Hitchcock (Torn Curtain) and Billy Wilder (The Fortune Cookie) were still in the game, but films were shifting focus from the star to auteur-directors such as Mike Nichols, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Claude Lelouch. Hitchcock could easily move to center-stage when called upon, but this was not so easy for William Wyler.
Master director Wyler was the antithesis of the director as star. His work, it seemed, revealed nothing of himself, his psyche, his obsessions, fetishes and passions. And so, in 1966, what was one to make of How to Steal a Million, a charming and frothy and forgettable romance and crime caper? While hardly a ruin, it features Audrey Hepburn, at age 37, in her last “jeune fille” role. As yet another young lady with a “father dilemma” (Hugh Griffith as an incorrigible art forger), Audrey could never be less than enchanting. Together again after their historic collaboration 13 years before in Roman Holiday, Hepburn and Wyler have all the right moves. Besides working with a favored director, Audrey also has terrific chemistry with an equally ingratiating Peter O’Toole (proving he could have been just another handsome leading man if he hadn’t decided to be a great actor). Together, they are smashing.
Filmed in and around Paris, Wyler and company create a chic, madcap comedy of crime and love. And never discount the role of “the look” as a major character in any Audrey Hepburn film. Givenchy is ever-present in a series of gorgeous get-ups (except when Audrey has to don the duds of a scrubwoman – with glittery eye shadow), sports cars abound and everyone looks just ooh-la-la. Charles Boyer is on hand for authentic Gallic charm, Griffith and Eli Wallach lend solid comic support and John Williams’ score (scoring always being an asset in a Wyler film) adds to the general overall sense of romantic delight.
Standing in the sidelines of all the cinematic grandeur and all of the folly that followed, How to Steal a Million still holds up today as exactly what it was meant to be; a delightful, beautiful, glamorous escape. This was the product that professional Hollywood perfected and was perfectly served up by one of its master craftsmen. Wyler is in complete control of this sweet cinematic bon bon and, as with all sophisticated and slightly expensive sweets, it is a pleasure for more than one of the senses. Whether they knew it or not, it was a fond farewell to Audrey’s “girl” character and to the sumptuous productions that could only be made by a state of mind called Hollywood. But, as they say in the backstretch, breeding tells. Today, this film holds up just as well, if not better, than so many of the “hot” movies that were the critics’ darlings that year. When you build with good material and your builder is a master like William Wyler, the ruin stands tall in the twilight while the upstarts crumble like dust at its feet.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page.