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How to Steal a Million (February 16, 2012)

In 1902, a child named Willi Wyler was born in Mulhouse, Alsace. Alsace was part of Germany then, but it had been taken from France in 1871 and would become part of France again in 1919. By 1926, William Wyler, who was a distant relative of the Laemmle family, who founded and ran Universal Studios, was directing films in the United States. Several years ago we showed a series at the library featuring Wyler’s films centered on women. In the summer of 1952, Wyler, who was a very big name among American directors by that time, directed Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, Roman Holiday. Wyler has the distinction of being the person most nominated for best director Oscars. He was nominated twelve times. He won three of them. So did Frank Capra. Only John Ford, who won four, won more.

Wyler definitely had French connections, and it isn’t a surprise that he seems to have been completely comfortable making How to Steal a Million in Paris in 1965. Unlike several other Hollywood films made there in the 50s and 60s, the film is not about American expatriates. The script was written by Harry Kurnitz from a story by George Bradshaw. The leads were Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It’s hard to tell which of their performances is more effortlessly sophisticated. The Welsh actor Hugh Griffith, playing Hepburn’s father, somehow manages to portray a Frenchman without any difficulty. Eli Wallach plays the American millionaire interested in art and in Hepburn. The museum guards include Jacques Marin, who we saw as the police inspector in Charade, and the clown known as Moustache. Wyler used several other French actors very much accustomed to Hollywood, including Charles Boyer and Marcel Dalio. The art direction was by Alexandre Trauner. Hepburn was again dressed by Hubert de Givenchy. The black lace cocktail dress and jacket Hepburn wears in the bar at the Ritz Hotel were auctioned for 60,000 pounds in 2009. That isn’t a record price for her clothes; the little black dress she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s went for 467,000 pounds in 2006. How to Steal a Million was released in July, 1966.

I love it. I’ve said before it’s my favorite in this series, perhaps because it looks so good. The movie is an almost perfect vehicle for Audrey Hepburn, a romantic comedy with engaging performances. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times in 1966 wrote, “Absolute, unabashed deception, not only as a plot element but as a method of wooing the audience into charmed and uncontentious belief, is beautifully and cheerfully practiced in this wholly ingratiating film that should leave everyone who sees it feeling kindlier about deceit. . .Of course, you are not expected to believe it. . . The whole thing is clearly preposterous. . . Never mind. It may all be deception—a piece of fictitious trickery as crafty as those phony Van Gogh paintings or the glistening Cellini statuette. It is still a delightful lot of flummery while it is going on. . .” I hope you enjoy watching How To Steal a Million with me tonight.