How to Steal a Million
Heist Comedy | 123 Minutes | 1966 | United States
* * *
Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn) is the daughter of an art forger, who has collected so many supposed masterpieces that he has won considerable renown in the world of art. Approached by the Kléber-Lafayette Museum, he proudly loans to this illustrious Paris institution (occupying the building of the real-life Musée Carnavalet) his Cellini ‘Venus’. In fact the statue is a fake, the elaborate handiwork of his own father: forgery evidently runs in the family.
However Nicole grows increasingly concerned that her father will be found out. When the museum determines to authenticate the statue, she enlists the help of an apparent art thief, Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who has been skulking with intent about the family home. Together the duo stalk the museum after hours, and when their perseverance pays off, they make away with the Cellini ‘Venus’ as romance beckons.
This lighthearted heist caper manages to seem at once generic, overlong, and awkward in structure. In the early going we dwell within the Bonnet house to the point of claustrophobia; while the heist itself proves interminable, uneventful and repetitious as Nicole and Simon fumble in and out of a broom closet, grope for keys, scrub floors, and set off false alarm after false alarm until the museum guards finally give up. Despite big sets, the Paris location, and Hepburn’s Givenchy wardrobe, it all feels remarkably small scale, a brief skit about a bumbling museum theft drawn out and dealt with so lavishly that it loses whatever charm it might have possessed.
Emotionally with Hepburn we are always on a slow burn, as our initial impression of attractive vacuity gives way not only to her gracefulness, but to real nuance and emotional heft. But here William Wyler – who had previously directed Hepburn in the exquisite Roman Holiday (1953), now only a few pictures away from the close of his career – only belabours thin material. Hepburn could draw winning performances out of both top-tier and second-string leading men, but the foppish Peter O’Toole fails to endow his character with any roguish interest.
At least Hepburn stars; while Hugh Griffith as Charles Bonnet, and Eli Wallach as Davis Leland, Nicole’s wealthy American admirer, are impeccably cast. Despite its flaws How to Steal a Million is pleasant enough to watch once, especially if you’re a Hepburn fan and enjoy 1960s chic, and it just about warrants a third star.