How to Steal a Million (1966)
How to Steal a Million is an eternally delightful film that happens to be one of my very favorites. It was released in 1966, but it has the feel of a 1930s comedy with the modern zazz of the 1960s.
Clever, funny dialogue, lovely sets and costumes, a snappy plot, and a light, mocking tone make it lots of fun to watch.
If even that isn’t enough, the film was directed by the legendary William Wyler, (who directed Hepburn in her first Hollywood film, Roman Holiday, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, and in The Children’s Hour (1961).) And the catchy score was composed by one of the greatest of them all, John Williams, who composed the scores for Jaws, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, among many, many others.
It’s also a very pretty movie. How to Steal a Million was shot in Paris by one of Hepburn’s favorite cinematographers, Charles Lang, who also shot Paris When it Sizzles and Charade. Plus, the film is set in fancy places and museums, and Hepburn is clothed in Givenchy, so there are beautiful things everywhere.
Givenchy had designed Hepburn’s costumes (and perfume–he got a screen credit for Miss Hepburn’s scent on Paris When it Sizzles!) ever since his work on Sabrina in 1954, and he does not skimp on this film. (The black strappy number in the poster does not appear in the movie, but those stockings do!)
Hepburn had starred in another Parisian comedy just two years before called Paris When it Sizzles (1964). That film was trying to be a clever, irreverent, self-referential spoof, but didn’t quite make it. She’d also starred in a Parisian mystery/thriller/comedy, Charade (1963), with a darker edge of murder and betrayal. How to Steal a Million plays it straighter than Paris When It Sizzles without taking itself too seriously, but doesn’t go as serious as Charade; the finished product is a charming delight.
To the film! Audrey Hepburn plays Nicole Bonnet, a wealthy Parisian whose aristocratic family has a famous art collection. We open at a shockingly red auction house where Nicole’s father Charles (played by Hugh Griffith) watches the energetic bidding on a Cézanne from his family’s collection.
She stops briefly and turns up the radio just in time to hear an announcement about the record-breaking figure that the Bonnet Cézanne reached at the auction. Her eyes pop open, which must have been an effort as they are swathed in kohl.
This movie is worth watching just as an eyeliner tutorial, I think. Here is Hepburn getting a touch-up on set:
Anyway, Nicole is utterly shocked to hear the auction news. She whizzes home in her tiny car. And what a home it is, smack in the middle of Paris! Fun fact: This mansion was a real house on the rue Parmentier, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, but it has since been demolished.
Into the house she flies, past the butler and up the stairs to a large dresser with a secret door leading to a secret staircase leading to a secret room! Shock!
Fun fact: Most of the interiors were sets built in the Studios de Boulogne, a large complex of sound stages in Paris. Production designer Alexandre Trauner did a superb job.
What is Monsieur Bonnet doing in this secret room? Why, he’s currently forging Van Gogh’s signature on that lovely painting! Unbeknownst to the world, Monsieur Bonnet is a brilliant forger and the famed Bonnet collection is peppered with his “Van Goghs” and “Monets.” The “Cézanne” that just sold at auction was one of Monsieur Bonnet’s works.
Nicole is in a tizzy, scolding her father for selling yet another fake masterpiece, and warning him that it has to stop. Sooner or later someone is going to discover Monsieur Bonnet’s illegal hobby!
Her father laughs off Nicole’s concerns and tells her about his latest effort, that gorgeous “Van Gogh” on his easel. He brags about scraping the dirt off of 19th century canvases to give it that extra touch of authenticity:
Fun fact: Local artists were hired to paint the works of art we see in the Bonnet house and the museum.
But her father was expecting this hullabaloo. He has agreed to lend the Bonnet’s famous sculpture, the Venus by the Renaissance master Cellini, to the (fictional) Musée Kléber-Lafayette Museum for a special exhibition. The motorcade has come to retrieve the statue.
Although Nicole’s father sticks to painting, her grandfather was a sculptor, and he carved the Venus, not Cellini! Nicole tries to explain to her father that you can’t forge sculpture anymore because of new scientific tests. She says that it is much too risky to display the Venus because if the museum discovers it is a forgery, then the entire Bonnet collection will be cast into doubt!
Her father dismisses her concerns. Why would they test the Venus? It isn’t as though he is planning to sell it!
Nicole is unconvinced, but obviously they can’t argue about it in front of the museum staff. In a very funny bit, she tries to damage the Venus on its way from its niche to the special padded box, hoping the whole thing will get called off if the sculpture is dropped/crushed.
But her father evades her murderous efforts, and the Venus is safely stowed and taken to the museum.
Once the Bonnets are alone again, we get more background on the Venus. As I mentioned before, Nicole’s grandfather carved it, and her grandmother posed for it, “before she started eating those enormous lunches,” chuckles Monsieur Bonnet.
Golly, Nicole is the spitting image of her grandmother!
Costume break: here is Nicole’s first Givenchy costume. (She had a matching coat and that driving hat, too). Most of her costumes are straight and simple (even deceptively so; notice the pleats in the side of the skirt), accessorized with skinny belts or eye-catching stockings.
Hepburn cut her hair short for this film, though it’s so pouf-ed up in the back that it looks as though she has an elaborate updo. She’s playing a wealthy, sophisticated Parisian, so it’s a great excuse for fine, chic outfits. Wealth and class practically drip from the simple, luxurious fabrics draped so beautifully on Hepburn’s slender frame. No one does elegant mod like Hepburn in head-to-toe Givenchy.
Anyway, soon the museum opens its “Masterpieces from French Collections” exhibition with a fancy gala. Monsieur Bonnet attends, but Nicole stays home and reads some scary Hitchcock stories, instead.
As she reads, we follow a shadowy figure as he breaks into the Bonnet mansion. Nicole hears some suspicious noises:She’s alone in the house and pretty freaked out, but she summons her courage and goes to investigate. She sees someone downstairs and wiggles an antique revolver off of a heraldic display on the wall.
What she can’t see from her position on the stairs is that the man is chipping a piece of paint off of the newly finished Van Gogh…how curious!
This is our introduction to Peter O’Toole as Simon Dermott. I love the first shots of his face as he hides behind the painting. His amazingly blue eyes just pop in the dim light. Swoon.
He is dashing yet charmingly wimpy.
The whole scene is very funny with light touches of comedy throughout that add to the overall humor of the situation. For example, Nicole gets her huge revolver tangled in the telephone cord, Simon tries to hide behind the marble column, and he’s impeccably attired in a splendidly cut tuxedo while she is in a flimsy nightie. (What kind of burglar works in a tux?)
Nicole is all set to have him arrested until she notices which painting he was stealing. She’s afraid that the publicity from an arrest would bring unwanted attention to the collection and this newly “discovered” “Van Gogh,” so she tells Simon that she will let him go this time.
You can watch the scene here.
Nicole feels rather badly about wounding Simon, and he doesn’t help, wincing and emitting little cries as she cleans and bandages the very minor injury:Then it’s a problem of transportation. He claims that he is unable to drive, and when she offers to send him home in a taxi, he says it wouldn’t be ideal for his car to be found at her house the next morning…”I’m really thinking of you,” he says, faux-courteously.
So Nicole offers to drive him home. She pulls on a pair of black galoshes and a shocking-pink coat over her nightdress. It’s the only time she wears anything even slightly ramshackle in the whole film. Simon likes what he sees…
Fun fact: There is a clear raincoat with white trim draped on the same chair where she finds the pink coat, and there are some behind-the-scenes photographs of Hepburn wearing the plastic coat over the nightgown:
Maybe there was a deleted scene with Hepburn wearing that coat instead of the pink one? Or perhaps they tried the scene with both coat options? The clear coat would be funny since it doesn’t actually cover her nightgown, but the pink coat pops beautifully in the dark.
Nicole is a daring driver, and Simon cowers as they speed across Paris to the Ritz Hotel (“You’re a very chic burglar,” she tells Simon when he directs her to his lodgings). Nicole darts across traffic and speeds around corners, and Simon jumps and flinches.
One athletic dive beneath the dashboard prompts Nicole to comment on his injury:
This handsome thief always has an answer.
They arrive at the Ritz, and Nicole suddenly seems smitten by this handsome weirdo. It’s a very quick switch from exasperation to bewitchment, but go with it. He asks her to wipe down the frame of the “Van Gogh” to erase his fingerprints, and she agrees, before telling him:She rides home in a taxi in a daze while he conducts some experiments on that chip of “Van Gogh” paint. We don’t know what he finds out, but he smiles…We will see those magnifying spectacles again, by the way.
It’s Davis Leland (Eli Wallach), an American tycoon. He gets back in his chauffeured car and leaves a message for his secretary asking her to cancel all of his appointments and find out everything she can about the Bonnet family and their art collection. Hmm.
Fun fact: George C. Scott (Patton) was originally cast as Leland, but he didn’t show up for his first day of filming, so Wyler replaced him with Wallach. It seems that Scott had partied too hard in Parisian nightclubs the night before his call, and he was stricken with a nasty hangover.
Back at the Bonnet mansion, Nicole arrives to find her father in a celebratory mood raiding their beautiful bar cart. She tells him about her eventful evening, and he agrees that she was right to let the thief go, but he’s taken aback by the way she describes the burglar:
He’s concerned, to say the least!
As she turns to go, she literally runs into that “quite good-looking, terrible man.” She is shocked, and he is pleasant. He says he has something important to say to her, but she has no interest in his company.
Nicole is horrified to be giving a thief the inside look at security, and Simon doesn’t help things. He encourages the director with questions and the sly admission that he is interested in “art” and in “security.”
We get some important information in this scene about the infrared beams and alarm guarding the statue, but I love it because of the delightful interplay between an annoyed Nicole attempting to drag Simon away, and Simon’s unabashed efforts to prolong the tour. You can watch the scene here.
O’Toole and Hepburn became good friends while making this movie, and they have wonderful chemistry. It is their charming, exasperating, romantic, and goofy work together that makes the movie. Here they are between takes of this scene:
Once Nicole finally pulls Simon out of the museum, she tells him to “go away” and jumps into her toy car. Off she zooms, despite Simon’s suddenly sincere request to talk to her about something important…
Here is Hepburn filming this scene:
How amazing is it to see the divinely elegant Audrey Hepburn making silly faces in her impeccable Givenchy suit and white gloves? I’m so used to seeing Miss Hepburn looking classy and poised that I find it really fun to see her looking silly. Though she somehow still looks classy and poised even when she’s goofing off!
Back to the movie world! Simon visits an art dealer named DeSolnay (Charles Boyer, Gaslight). He has been waiting to hear from Simon about the Bonnet “Van Gogh.” DeSolnay seems to suspect that it is a fake, but Simon only gives him a significant look, no definitive answers.
DeSolnay goes on a long explanation of why wealthy Monsieur Bonnet forges paintings (for the love and thrill of it, not the money), but Simon seems lost in thought. This is not our first clue that Simon is not actually an art thief, but it’s a pretty big one.
Meanwhile, Nicole is preparing for a date with an American millionaire named Davis Leland who she met that day. Remember Mr. Leland and his interest in the Venus?
Pretty wild, right? I like how her green outfit is lying on the bed, ready to go!
Anyway, Nicole’s excitement turns to worry when she mentions her date’s name to her father, and he tells her that Leland is an avid art collector with several (forged) pieces from the Bonnet collection. Nicole is not pleased to hear this, as Leland had told Nicole that he didn’t even like art!
She’s scared that Leland arranged to meet her because he is suspicious of the Bonnet collection. She’s on edge throughout their fancy dinner, but she looks fabulous in lime Givenchy and sparkling Cartier earrings! (Cartier got an onscreen credit for “Miss Hepburn’s Jewelry.”)
It eventually comes out that Leland wanted to form a relationship with Nicole in hopes of persuading her father to sell him the Venus. This is terrific news for Nicole, as she’d been terrified that Leland had discovered her father’s forgeries! Her concern evaporates and she even kisses the dorky tycoon, telling him that if it was up to her the Venus would be on his doorstep in the morning!
Fortunately for us, Simon makes an appearance in this scene, too. He lures Davis away from the table with a faked phone call (a strategy that is now obsolete) and slides in next to Nicole with this fantastic quip:
She’s furious at his intrusion, but he tells her that he must talk to her about something very important. He manages to give her his phone number and escape the table before Davis sees him, and before Nicole causes a scene.
This restaurant looks as though it is set up in Honore’s apartment in Gigi (1958) with all those art nouveau curves. Actually, this scene was filmed at the legendary restaurant Maxim’s, which features in Gigi, too.
Nicole is seated for the entire scene, so we only see her green dress from the waist up. Here’s a costume appreciation break with a photograph from a costume test:
The next morning, Nicole is dressed in sunny yellow so bright it can blind you if you’re not careful. The color echoes her happy mood: she tells her father that Davis Leland only wants the Venus and he has no suspicions about the Bonnet collection.
I think this is my least favorite outfit of the film, though I like how the white and yellow scarf so perfectly goes with the white belt and lattice stockings. But otherwise the lemony suit feels almost cartoonish, though it matches the sun in the “Van Gogh” perfectly!
Anyway, something happens to spoil their morning. An elderly insurance clerk arrives and asks for Monsieur Bonnet’s signature on the million dollar policy the museum has taken out on the Venus. Monsieur Bonnet signs the form, and only then does the clerk tell him that by activating the policy, Monsieur Bonnet has just authorized a series of technical examinations of the Venus.
This could be the end of the Bonnets. Nicole and her father helplessly watch the clerk depart with the signed form, and fall into chairs in a deep depression.If the Venus is outed as a forgery, the entire Bonnet collection would come under suspicion, and Monsieur Bonnet would probably end up in prison.
Into this gloom and doom enters an energetic South American man desperate to buy the “Van Gogh” Monsieur Bonnet just painted.
It’s French actor Marcel Dalio, who delivers these winning lines about having to leave Paris immediately because of “a revolution in my country. Also, some of my mines are flooded.” But he couldn’t leave without seeing the “Van Gogh!” Monsieur Bonnet throws him out of the house in a rage before crumpling.
All seems lost, until Nicole remembers a certain recent acquaintance. She wipes away her tears and calls the Ritz.
The next time we see Nicole, she is at the Ritz bar waiting for Simon. She looks somehow different. The hungry camera moves slowly up from her black pumps, intricate stockings, lace skirt, and lace jacket until it finds her terribly glamorous face covered in a lace half-mask. It’s the only time in the movie we see her smoking, but she’s going for a femme fatal thing, so naturally she brought some cigarettes.
He appears rather dazed and then amused at Nicole as full-on queen of the underworld. She requests that Simon use “no names” as though they are being surveilled, and speaks in phrases she clearly picked up from the movies. For all her sophistication, Nicole is a nice, innocent girl playing at being a criminal, and it’s clear she has no idea what she is doing.
Simon even starts speaking in a cartoonish gangster accent out of the side of his mouth when he realizes what she’s up to. He’s somewhat mesmerized and highly curious by the vision in black lace requesting his illegal services, but when she tells him that she wants him to steal the Cellini Venus, his immediate response is a resounding no.
Let’s take a moment and appreciate Nicole’s large diamond earrings, lace mask, and eye-makeup. Her lash line and lid have been outlined in thick black liner connecting in an exaggerated cat eye, making her eyes look even larger than normal, and her eyelids are covered in silver sparkles as though coated in diamonds.
Naturally, Nicole can’t tell Simon why she wants him to steal the Venus, and he refuses to undertake the insane attempt. Her face falls and she moves to leave, but Simon reconsiders. He likes Nicole. He tells her he will think about it, and they can meet again tomorrow morning for some reconnaissance. He’s not ready to say goodbye to Nicole now that he’s got her attention, though:
The next morning, Nicole and Simon meet at the museum. Nicole has left her lace mask at home. Simon tries to look professional and busy, though he often steals glances at his companion when she’s not looking.
Nicole follows Simon around eagerly, but he’s pessimistic about their chances. When he puts on his funny magnifying spectacles to stare at the Venus and her infrared beams, he notices a peculiar resemblance between the Venus and Nicole:
No one besides Mr. O’Toole can look that debonair and handsome in those glasses. How cute is his dotted tie?
Simon explores the place thoroughly, finding a broom cupboard and a back exit, and even conning his way into the guard’s room. Here are our stars taking a break between takes:
After Simon’s reconnaissance is complete, they leave the museum and walk around the manicured museum garden. Fun fact: The museum exteriors were filmed at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, but the interiors were sets built for the movie. (Thank you to this site and this one for helping me figure out these locations.)
Then Simon suggests that they wait until the Venus is back in the Bonnet home and do a “nice, clean inside job,” or even start with a theft at a small gallery, and “gathering confidence as we go,” work their way up to the museum. But she tells him that she is not stealing the Venus for publicity or a silly adventure–she must do it now, and she can’t tell him why!
Look at this lovely pair hanging out on set. It’s a nice view of more Givenchy stockings, too.
Nicole and Simon walk around Paris for so long that Nicole accuses him of “working by the mile.” Here they are behind the scenes in a park. Look at O’Toole goofing around with a child actor!
Nicole is frustrated by Simon’s silence and apparent nonchalance, but he assures her that he is working hard on their problem:
I just love these two and their back-and-forth!
When she asks why she is wearing this horrific getup, Simon answers, “Well, for one thing, it gives Givenchy a night off!” Love it. It’s a nice reverse My Fair Lady (1964) twist, too; in this film, Hepburn goes from sophisticated aristocrat to frumpy scrubwoman, if only for one evening!
Nicole asks Simon what the plan is, and he tells her that there is no plan. He is not going to do the job because it’s crazy and she won’t even give him a good reason! She starts to cry, but he’s not having it!
I laugh every time at the “I’m too tough” line, especially because a few moments later he changes his mind, clearly against his better judgment, and tells her to meet him at the museum tomorrow evening. He really likes her!
The next evening, Nicole is heading out the door to meet Simon at the appointed time when Davis Leland shows up. She attempts to sneak out of the mansion, but he sees her in a mirror, though he doesn’t realize it is a mirror until he crashes into it. He’s a very effective foil to Simon, that’s for sure!
Wyler is known for depth staging and deep focus cinematography (see my review on Roman Holiday for more on that), and he often uses mirrors, as in these shots from Roman Holiday and quite a few in this film:
Yes! she says with conviction. So off they go. Obviously I’m not great at holding back spoilers, but I’m going to show some uncharacteristic restraint and not walk you through the heist moment by moment. Suffice it to say that Simon’s plan uses “psychological warfare” and “normal human reactions,” plus the mundane collection of coins, chalk, a magnet, a boomerang, a bucket, the scrubwoman clothes, pliers, and some tubing.
It’s a wonderful, refreshing change from most caper films with their hyper-complicated gadgets and special effects. Plus, no one dies!
Here is Hepburn’s robbery outfit. Note the double-layer skirt, backwards collar, buttons along the back, and draped pockets beneath the narrow black belt. See what I mean about deceptively simple clothes? It looks basic but there’s a lot going on!
It’s very similar to the dress she wears in the opening scenes of the film, so I wish it was something a little different, but, as usual, it’s disgustingly chic.
So, Simon and Nicole are stuck in a cupboard beneath the stairs, just like Harry Potter! The guards are none the wiser and the museum is silent and still.
Here they are in the film and behind-the-scenes in the tiny closet set. As you can see, Wyler sometimes films the closet with black space on either side. It emphasizes the teeny tiny space of the tall, narrow closet compared to the wide screen 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio.
Once Simon brilliantly unlocks the closet door, (a feat you can watch here), he occasionally leaves their cozy digs and causes trouble. Nicole puts on the scrubwoman clothes, and things really start happening a few hours into their stay.
Nicole is nearly hysterical with worry and fear and tells Simon she had no right to drag him into her problem. But what about the Venus’ technical examinations? Simon asks her. And her eyes get wide. “It’s a fake, isn’t it?” he says. And her eyes get wider:
And suddenly the closet isn’t so cramped at all!
After a respectful cross-dissolve from the kiss to shots of the museum, we return to our newly declared couple to find them relaxing in a warm embrace until Nicole accidentally scratches Simon with her monstrous engagement ring.
This brings them to the topic of her fiancé, Davis Leland, “Or is it Leland Davis?” wonders a dazed Nicole between kisses. It reminds me of the fantastic stoop scene in The More the Merrier when Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur calmly and kindly discuss her fiancé and ring while caressing each other!Nicole and Simon’s love fest is interrupted with some of Simon’s mischief, after which he returns unseen to his closet and his love. They kiss as policeman and museum guards scurry about.I shan’t say how, but Simon’s ingenious plan works! He substitutes a drunk guard’s bottle for the Venus. When the museum’s cleaning staff arrives, Nicole attempts to blend in.
There’s an extra bit of comedy watching aristocratic Nicole try to act like a scrubwoman. She has no idea what she is doing, and tries to scrub the oddest things, like tapestries and velvet ropes.
The head guard (Jacques Marin, who was also in Charade (1963) with Hepburn) has a spectacular reaction, and soon all hell breaks loose within the museum!
Meanwhile, the press have descended upon the Bonnet household, and Monsieur Bonnet gives them exactly what they want, black bows and all. But once they have departed, his fake grief turns to real joy. He and Nicole are saved!
Meanwhile, Davis Leland is even more keyed-up than the Bonnets. He wants the Venus, and doesn’t care if it’s “hot or cold!” DeSolnay, who happens to be Leland’s art dealer, discourages him from buying stolen merchandise and sends him to Simon.
They meet at the Ritz bar. Simon says he has a few leads and might be able to procure the Venus. He then warns Leland that he must sever any contact with the Bonnet family, as the dangerous criminals Simon suspects of stealing the Venus (ha!) would immediately suspect a trap! Davis whines that he’s engaged to Nicole Bonnet, but decides then and there that he would rather have the Venus.
As Leland leaves the bar, he runs into Nicole, who tries to return his ring. Simon watches with undisguised amusement at Leland’s frantic attempts to get away from her.
Simon is a clever man, that’s for sure! In one fell swoop he disposed of the Venus and a romantic rival.This scene is also a nice echo of the earlier Ritz bar scene when Simon watched a lace-clad Nicole leave the bar.
Nicole is rattled by her encounter with Leland, and she’s even more rattled a moment later when Simon casually admits that the Venus was his first burglary…
Simon grabs hold of Nicole and very calmly reveals his true identity. He’s not a burglar at all, but instead is a highly educated, sought-after criminologist and museum security expert who specializes in detecting and tracking down forgeries.
Nicole is beyond dismayed and whimpers, “You’re all of that? Then you’re not a burglar?” in tones of immense disappointment and shock.
It’s a very funny scene. Poor Nicole is blindsided, but we knew early on that Simon was not really a thief.
At that very dramatic moment, Monsieur Bonnet appears at their table. He recognizes this tall, slim, blue-eyed man from his daughter’s description, and guesses, quite correctly, that Simon is the one to thank for the Venus’ theft.
They speak in vague terms; when Monsieur Bonnet asks which “girl” Simon intends to keep, Simon very wisely answers, “The real one.” It’s a decision Monsieur Bonnet and Nicole are delighted to hear. Or Nicole would be delighted, if she wasn’t still reeling.
As Nicole and Simon drive away from the Bonnet mansion, the South American gentleman passes them on his way in. Simon asks who it is, and Nicole pauses for just a moment before answering that it is Papa’s cousin. Simon doesn’t believe it for a moment, but he doesn’t seem to care, either:
Here they are filming this scene, wearing hard hats for some reason:
And here is Miss Hepburn in her checkered coat and blue swirly hat. It’s lovely up close, but from a distance it looks dull and baggy, in my opinion:Here she is in a publicity photo in a different hat and gloves:
Whew, so many slim-cut, outrageously chic costumes, and even more clever, outrageously delightful moments! In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn directed by the great William Wyler. Throw in Paris, Givenchy, a clever if outlandish script, and plenty of funny moments, and you’ve got a winner!
How to Steal a Million got mixed reviews, with some critics finding it out-of-touch and old-fashioned in the tumultuous new world of 1966, but it did well at the box office. This stylish, lighthearted comedy remains very watchable and surprisingly timeless. Here’s the trailer–enjoy!