I am a “Gambit” pimp.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film, you can go ahead and start writing me the “thank you” note you’ll eventually send to me right now, because “Gambit” is one of those movies that people get passionate about after they’ve seen it. I was the same way. I’d never heard of it until QT Quattro, the fourth of Quentin Tarantino’s film festivals in Austin where he would take over the Alamo Drafthouse for a week or more and just show prints that he owned. It was February of 2000 when I attended the festival where he showed “Gambit,” and here’s what I wrote about it afterwards:
I”ve never seen GAMBIT before. In fact, I”ve never heard of it. No matter. I”ve seen it now, and I”m totally taken with it. It”s one of the most consistently clever heist films I”ve seen, and there”s a wonderful balance between the plan the way it should work and the way it finally does work. Herbert Lom and Michael Caine are both excellent in the film, delivering wry comic work, fully engaged by the whole cat and mouse of being thief and target. I have to reserve special praise for McLaine, though. When I was a kid, she was already starring in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, so that”s the image of her I had first. It”s hard to reconcile the wicked funny f**k bunny of THE APARTMENT and this film with her New Age grandmotherly self, but there”s no denying her appeal in this film. She”s such a confident comedian, so knowing, so in command of herself physically, that she energizes the first 20 minutes of the film without saying a single word.
It”s funny what can distract you from a picture. For me, the one thing that jarred me (pun fully intended) in GAMBIT was the score, written by the wonderful Maurice Jarre. The main theme of the film is quoted directly from his own LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It”s a major quote, and it would pull me out of the movie for a moment each and every time it happened. That”s a minor quibble, though, not even a real complaint. The day I complain about watching a great film while listening to Maurice Jarre music, you should remind me to quit doing this. This film is a long con from the moment it starts, and not just for the characters. Sargent and Neames work with confidence and poise to hoodwink the audience, and when we all realized exactly how we were being played, the audience went nuts, cheering wildly at the sheer skill. From that moment on, the film had a blank check of goodwill from me. Thankfully, it”s much more than just one clever moment. It keeps working overtime to the very last frame, which should leave you smiling from ear to ear if you have any affection at all for the genre.
Now, twelve years later, I’ve seen the film five or six times, and I’ve grown to love it even more. I have spent those twelve years doing everything I can to motivate other people to see it, which was complicated by the fact that it wasn’t on video for the longest time. Right now, it’s available for purchase exclusively from Amazon, as part of their Universal Vault Series, but it’s also available streaming through Netflix Instant.
I assume you will eventually decide to buy the film after you see it, but since you’re probably as clueless about it as I was before it was shown to me, let me urge you to check it out on Netflix streaming right now. It’s only going to be available on the service until February 29th, so you should forget any plans you had for your weekend simply because I say so, and you should watch the film immediately.
I’m only kind of kidding. I really do feel that strongly about it, and the reason is because this film is a reminder of just how important a great script is. That would seem self-evident, yet this is an industry that consistently treats the writer and his work like an afterthought, like an inconvenient part of a process that would be better off if only we could get all the darn writers out of it.
Later this year, there will be a remake of “Gambit” arriving in theaters, with Michael Hoffman directing from a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen. The logline description is “An art curator enlists the services of a Texas steer roper to con a wealthy collector into buying a phony Monet painting.” I’ve read the Coens script, and it’s a very different animal than the original. The scam involved is nothing like what happens in the original film, and in this case, the best case scenario is that this new film, which will star Cameron Diaz, Colin Firth, and Alan Rickman as a wildly wealthy nudist with a fondness for Monet, will lead people back to find the original, which will delight them in a whole different way.
But regardless of the remake, I just want people to see this movie. I want other people to love the movie the way I love it. My friends are all already onboard, and in fact, this neatly dovetails with the first “One Thing I Love Today” I ran this week when “Cougar Town” pays homage to the film later this season. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but just knowing that Kevin Biegel got a network to spring for his “‘Gambit’ episode” makes me deeply, deeply happy.
It’s kind of amazing to me that Alvin Sargent, born in 1927, is still writing studio movies today. This business is so brutally focused on age that I could easily imagine him sidelined, even if he is married to a producer. But he’s been a key part of the “Spider-Man” films so far, and he’s a credited writer on this summer’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” as well. He’s got some remarkable credits on his filmography, including “Paper Moon” and “Ordinary People” and “Straight Time” and even “What About Bob?”, but for me, “Gambit” might be the best of the bunch, a heist movie where the romance is just as strong and just as smart, and where every single piece of the puzzle works. I mentioned my fondness for the film to Michael Caine on the set of “Journey 2” last year, and he lit up at the mention of it. “There’s one you don’t hear about often,” he said. “I remember it being as much fun to watch as it was to make.” My shameless crush on young Shirley MacLaine (ah, the terrible things I’d do with a time machine) has probably never been worse than it is when I see “Gambit,” where she’s beautiful and hilarious and where her character evolves from this intentionally unknowable mystery into one of the most endearing, human, charming characters she ever played. And Herbert Lom? Well, as much as I treasure him in the “Pink Panther” films, I love what a great games-playing partner he is in this movie, and how much class and style Lom could bring to a role.
“Gambit” is that rarest of things… a movie that a major studio released with major movie stars that is genuinely great, but that somehow slipped through the cracks completely. So often, when you get around to watching a classic of yesteryear, it comes with a ton of baggage, and chances are you’ve already picked it up by osmosis thanks to the way culture works. I know that when I finally saw “Psycho,” I felt like I’d seen it before because of how many references to it there are in pop culture. The same was true of “Casablanca,” “Gone With The Wind,” and “Citizen Kane” for me. They were pre-digested to such a degree that I don’t feel like I ever had a pure experience with any of them. But “Gambit” lurks out there, mostly unheralded, waiting for every new audience to be blown away, and if I can do my part to convince even a few of you to give it a try before it drops off Netflix, I’ll feel like my Movie Karma is in alignment for the weekend.
ONE THING I LOVE TODAY appears here every day. Yep. Every day.