A few years ago I went on a bit of an Audrey Hepburn kick, and I have to say her early movies have aged remarkably well. True, I sometimes found the pacing a little plodding in places, but A-Hep (as I took to calling her in my hand-written journals) had such an infectious and effervescent screen presence that it would have been impossible to stop watching once I’d started! Aside from being a very pretty lady, she also had the most adorable inflections. I remember watching Paris When It Sizzles (1964), and having the word “Serendipity” stuck in my head for weeks afterwards, simply because of the way she pronounced it! Still, I admit that while I was mooning over books of her glossy photographs, and reading her biographies, I was also neglecting a number of critically acclaimed entries from her resume. Tch, tch, tch! Lucky for me, More4 were showing How to Steal a Million (1966) last week, so I was finally able to scratch it off of my “to watch” list.
For those who don’t know, A-Hep plays ‘Nicole’, the daughter of an incorrigible forger of fine art, who has just loaned an ersatz Cellini sculpture to a big, fancy French museum. When our heroine learns that the museum is arranging to test the authenticity of the piece (for insurance purposes), Nicole sets about trying to steal the statuette back, before her father’s deception can be revealed, and their family reputation tarnished. Fortunately for her, she happens to cross paths with a dashing “high society burglar”, played by Peter O’Toole, who agrees to help her carry out the crime, in exchange for a few stolen kisses. The early rom-com scenes are all fairly light and breezy, but the heist sequence is played with an admirably straight-face… I mean, there are still plenty of jokes and soppy moments to leaven the mood a little, but the mechanics of the burglary itself are taken very seriously, and there are several moments of genuine, edge-of-seat suspense. Also working in the film’s favour is the fact that A-Hep was roughly the same age as her leading man for once! In fact, O’Toole was a couple of years younger than her, which makes a welcome contrast to the ever-so-slightly-creepy Funny Face (1957), in which she’s paired with a 58-year-old Fred Astaire, who was 30 years her senior at the time. Ew.
It should go without saying, but A-hep looks fantastically glamorous throughout the film… I mean, I wasn’t too keen on the driving helmet that looked like a hollowed out ostrich egg, but it was more than made up for by the black lacy dress and eye-mask she wears to a clandestine meeting with O’Toole. I throw the word “goth” around rather loosely on this blog, but surely that outfit has to qualify? Of course, it pre-dates the real Goth scene, so you could even say she (or her go-to designer Givenchy) was setting a trend there! Weirdly though, as I was watching her performance, I kept thinking how much she reminded me of Tina Fey! If I were remaking this movie myself, I’d favour Audrey Tautou for the role, since Nicole was supposed to have been born and raised in France, but I’d probably give Fey a call too, just to see how she’d play it. Her on-screen image tends to be rather more self-consciously scruffy and geeky, while her glam makeover moments are always quickly undercut by self-deprecation and wisecracks… which is a large part of her charm, of course, so it might be fun to let her loose on a modern “re-imagining” of a caper like this one… or Charade (1963).