Directed by cinematographer Ronald Neame who’d received Oscar nominations for Special Effects screenplay Writing and producing in the 1940’s with a Sidney Carroll (The Hustler (1961)) story and a screenplay by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in the Their Flying Machines (1965)) and Alvin Sargent (who would later win two Oscars for his three screenplay nominations) this clever crime caper comedy would earn three Oscar nominations of its own: Color Art Direction-Set Decoration Costume Design and Sound. This original stars Michael Caine as a British thief who uses an Eurasian (Shirley MacLaine) to help him steal a priceless ancient bust from the “richest man in the World” (Herbert Lom). Caine’s character needs MacLaine’s because the bust resembles her and Ahmad Shahbandar (Lom) had paid a king’s ransom for it because it resembled his first wife who had tragically died after 1 year of marriage some 20 years earlier.
The film is quite entertaining and well structured. It begins with Harry Dean (Caine) following Nicole Chang (MacLaine) to her place of work in a Hong Kong “tea room” where she’s a 50 cents a dance gal. Harry sits next to another gentleman already there named Emile (John Abbott). Harry begins to describe his plan to steal the valuable bust involving the girl he’s pointed out across the room and then we the audience are shown its perfect execution in a 25 minute span during which MacLaine’s character speaks not one word! This caper sequence (in which Roger Carmel appears as a hotel concierge) is interspersed into the film in such a way that we are surprised to learn that Harry’s only been describing it all along to Emile because we are returned to the Hong Kong tea room at its conclusion. Harry concludes his description to Emile with “and that’s the way the whole thing will work” before he gets up to execute the first step of his plan. However “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. The first indication as to the verity of this expression is when (the previously silent) Nicole speaks!
And Nicole goes on speaking fortunately for Harry whose plan is not as foolproof as he’d thought it was. In fact it is only with her knowledge and assistance that any kind of plan can proceed at all. But Harry is not completely out of his depth and he adapts quite nicely when the real intended victim Shahbandar turns out to be more than the sentimental stooge he had envisioned. In fact Shahbandar and his assistant Abdul (Arnold Moss) are suspicious of Harry & Nicole and are seemingly prepared to thwart any effort to steal the invaluable sculpture. Though I won’t reveal anymore it’s fascinating to see how the actual crime varies from the original previously seen one. Plus the story’s enjoyable twists continue right up to the very end! Vic Tayback (Mel from TV’s Alice) appears uncredited as a plainclothes officer.
Was remade by Joel and Ethan Coen – starred Colin Firth Tom Courtenay Cameron Diaz Alan Rickman and Cloris Leachman (among others) – in 2012 (haven’t seen it).