When I was 11 I caught a tantalizing glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in a pink nightie, a dish towel tied incongruously round her waist, bandaging the arm of a “tall, blue-eyed, slim, quite good-looking” man in evening clothes. By the time she applied iodine to her wincing patient with “Don’t be such a baby, it’s only flesh wound,” and he drawled back “Happens to be my flesh,” I was in love with all three of them: Audrey, the tall blue-eyed Peter O’Toole, and the film. Sadly my delight was rather abruptly cut short when the whole thing turned into a Ronald Reagan speech at the White House. The copy of How To Steal a Million my mother, my great aunt (whose son was a presidential speechwriter in the 80s) and I were watching had been poorly taped off of television (the scene we watched is twenty minutes into the film) and then equally poorly taped over. Still my appetite was whetted, I was going to hunt down this film even if I had to go to all the video stores in Berkshire County.
As the very existence of this blog confirms, the day of the video store has passed, but when I thought about what was the best Netflix currently has to offer, How to Steal a Million (which was added on February 1st) was the obvious choice. No Audrey Hepburn film can be truly called forgotten (though I wouldn’t mind if the anti-intellectual creepfest that is Funny Face faded into obscurity), but How to Steal a Million, which was a huge hit in 1966, still feels like a discovery. Directed by William Wyler, from a script by A Shot in the Dark playwright Harry Kurnitz, and with a score by a young man named Johnny Williams, it is a beautifully crafted screwball gem. Audrey Hepburn plays Nicole Bonnet, the scrupulous daughter of an unscrupulous second generation art forger, played with with wild eyes and wilder eyebrows by Hugh Griffith (fittingly Griffith steals every scene he’s in: “Don’t you know that in his lifetime Van Gogh only sold one painting? While I, in loving memory of his tragic genius, have already sold two.”). One night Nicole catches Peter O’Toole’s Simon Dermott breaking into her family’s palatial Parisian home and accidentally shoots him. A few days later when she finds herself in need of a burglar she naturally thinks of him, because honestly what woman wouldn’t? He’s played by Peter O’Toole. And he agrees because honestly she’s Audrey Hepburn. What follows is an effervescently funny romantic comedy and an elegantly simple heist film.
How To Steal a Million was the third and final collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and director William Wyler. Their first was the lovely Roman Holiday (also available through Netflix streaming), which launched Hepburn’s career and garnered her a best actress Oscar. With three best director Oscars of his own and a record twelve nominations (the next closest is Billy Wilder with a mere eight), Wyler is one of the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age, equally at home in comedy (The Good Fairy), drama (Dodsworth), literary adaptation (The Heiress), and sword and sandal epic (Ben-Hur). In 1946 the German born director won Best Picture with The Best Years of Our Lives, a compelling and sensitive window into the experience of soldiers returning to their former lives after the war; it is a film that truly can be called great. Wyler’s career spanned nearly five decades and every genre, but ironically this versatility is one of the reasons he isn’t remember today in the way his peers Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and John Huston still are. It is very hard to see what connects How To Steal a Million to The Best Years of Our Lives, or Roman Holiday to Ben-Hur, other than an astute attention to character and situation. A William Wyler film is not instantly identifiable as a William Wyler film, and in an Auteur Theory driven assessment of directors’ importance versatility is rarely rewarded as much as an easily recognizable style. Still, the fact is that the man who made Ben-Hur was a natural director of comedy, and How To Steal a Million is a screwball classic equal to any by Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges.
“A comedy of elegant modes and manners that are gyrated into the realm of the absurd by being shown up in a zany situation that is made acceptable by wit and suspense.” Bosley Crowther NYTimes 7/24/66