How to Steal a Million (1966)

Cinema Snacks: How to Steal a Million (1966)

“Cinema Snacks” is an unwholesome nibble through the minor classics.
Warning: As snacks ruin your dinner, so too may spoilers ruin your watching experience. Graze with caution.

How to Steal a Million

 Today’s recommended snack: Macarons.

There are long stretches of life, between periods of great triumph (completing a workout) and great sorrow (beginning a workout), in which there’s not much going on. If I added up the total number of hours I spend hitting the snooze button, applying makeup, and refreshing my Facebook feed, I’d probably recoil in horror at the sum and call it quits. Sometimes, when I’m waiting in the self-serve line at IKEA, I think to myself, is life just one long and boring walk to the checkout? Is flat-pack furniture some broader metaphor for how, even when we build up our lives, we’re still just some cheap and shoddy beings held together by loose screws tightened with an intellectual Allen key? Is this Proppmätt cutting board really going to improve my life, and where did this Toftbo bathroom mat come from? I don’t even remember picking it up.

The cranky old cynic in me says that life is indeed a meandering and essentially pointless journey to the grave. This is the reason I need movies more than most people. I have an uncanny ability to absorb emotions in my environment like a mildewy kitchen sponge absorbs last night’s spaghetti sauce. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s not healthy to watch soul-dampening documentaries for three days straight, lest I start believing the world is all Wall Street misdeeds and ethnic cleansing.

Sometimes, I need a mood-altering drug. I prefer to take mine in the form of Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, and Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes. Champagne chaser optional.

How to Steal a Million

Ah, that’s better.

There are a few movies I return to time and time again because of the marvelous effect they have on interrupting my toxic tornado of nihilistic thoughts. Some of these films require emotional investment (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lincoln, Dodsworth, In America), and others slip easily into my brain with the lightness of angel food cake (The Sound of Music, Swing Time, The Awful Truth). When I’m feeling particularly gloomy, my first port of call on the stormy journey back to optimism is usually anything with Audrey Hepburn in it. I find it nearly impossible to remain the dour Nietzche-like spectre of my apartment when I see Audrey getting her hair cut short in Roman Holiday (1953), or sticking her finger into Cary Grant’s chin dimple in Charade (1963). And if I want to be charmed from start to finish, I pop in William Wyler’s 1966 heist-in-Givenchy, petit four of a film, How to Steal a Million.

How to Steal a Million

Zoom in to see the dollar signs in his pupils.

In the film my beloved Audrey plays Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of famous art collector Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) who, unbeknownst to the poor millionaires who buy his paintings, is actually a master of forgery who secretly replicates the works of Van Gogh from a hidden room in his mansion. So dedicated is Charles to his craft that he even dusts his canvases with dirt from Van Gogh’s own street, ensuring that his buyers receive an authentic, if somewhat less than totally honest, work of art. Nicole knows that each new forgery brings with it increased risk, but Charles is dedicated to his craft as sure as Van Gogh was dedicated to his, and so he feels no qualms when it comes time to lend his “Cellini” Venus (actually a forgery by his own father) to a local museum.

How to Steal a Million

Yep, that’s a Cellini alright.

And, here is where this lovely little croissant of a movie inserts a plot. Nicole, a touch smarter and more modern than her artisan father, knows that there are newfangled scientific ways to discovery a forgery. The thought of her father’s inevitable discovery terrifies her, although it obviously hasn’t filled her with enough guilt to stop what seems to be a steady diet of forgery-funded Givenchy frocks and Cartier jewels. In movieland, we forgive this hypocrisy because, well, don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same. It’s mid-sixties Givenchy, for goodness sake. Late one night, Nicole is awake reading when she hears a strange noise coming from downstairs. Enter Peter O’Toole.

How to Steal a Million


Nicole is perturbed by the burglar in her home but, as karma would have it, Simon Dermott (O’Toole) has removed one of her father’s “loving homages” to Van Gogh from the wall. Nicole cannot turn Simon in to the police, lest they look a little too closely at the forgery, and so she decides that she must return him safely home. What the audience knows at this point, which Nicole does not, is that Simon has removed a small sample of paint from the canvas, and that perhaps this “society burglar” is not as he seems.

How to Steal a Million

Nicole in nightgown, rubber boots, and a hot pink Givenchy coat. Advanced Style Warning: do NOT try this at home.

Of course, Simon cuts a rather fine figure, in spite of his burglaring ways. And if his mountain-lake-blue eyes weren’t enough to keep Nicole interested, she soon finds herself in need of a real thief.  Nicole’s father is forced to sign a million dollar insurance policy for the showing of the Cellini Venus at the museum, and this policy has some rather frightening strings attached. The museum requires a full inspection of the Venus, and much to the chagrin of Charles Bonnet, modern science has made it much easier to pick out a forgery. In a panic, Nicole does what any forward-thinking woman would: she plans a heist. Lacking in the kind of devious knowledge it takes to successfully rob a highly armed museum, she gets in touch with the only real criminal mastermind she knows. And since Simon may be reluctant to do the job, she’s sure to show up to her sales pitch wearing the greatest Heist Planning Outfit in the history of Heist Planning Outfits:

How to Steal a Million

Oh, this old thing? I wear it whenever I’m hatching a devious scheme.

Please note that glitzy blue eye-shadow in combination with a formal lace mask is a sartorial approach that’s FAO (For Audrey Only). I cannot be held responsible for any failed attempts made to revive this style.

How to Steal a Million

Advanced Style Warning: This will not look the same on you. I’m sorry.

Simon is quite disturbed by the streak of corruption running through Nicole but, for reasons she can hardly understand, he agrees to become the Clyde to her Bonnie (minus the bullet holes). Complicating the smoothness of their heist plans are the romantic interests of Nicole’s wealthy American suitor, Davis Leland, played by the marvelous Eli Wallach. Davis’s interests are not only directed at Nicole, but also the Cellini Venus, which he wants for his collection. Unfortunately he is a little slow to realize that neither Nicole, nor the Venus, are for sale.

How to Steal a Million

Check out the lens flare from that diamond ring.

The second half of How to Steal a Million is dedicated to the heist itself, and since two of cinema’s most gloriously radiant figures are at the helm of this caper, this ain’t gonna be no balaclava-and-machine-guns kind of job. This heist features our two beloved criminals, one clad in a white Givenchy dress and the other in a suit, crammed together in a broom closet. After seeing this move for the first time, “Trapped with Peter O’Toole in a Broom Closet” shot up to the top of my fantasy daydream queue.

How to Steal a Million

Ladies and gentlemen, the World’s Most Beautiful Broom Closet.

I find the crime part of this film so fun and delightfully ridiculous that I won’t follow the plot any further from here. But, when you get Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole together in such a small space, what do you think is going to happen? There is much to love in How to Steal a Million. Firstly, did I mention Givenchy? Audrey Hepburn’s heavenly collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy is so well-known that I hardly think it’s worthwhile for me to discuss it here. I will say that I don’t think there’s ever been a series of garments so completely in harmony with the personality wearing them. This particular movie doesn’t have the breathtaking gowns of Sabrina or Funny Face, but by god if I don’t want a closet full of simple Givenchy day dresses. Secondly, you have a zippy little score from a not-yet-famous John Williams (I tried to pick out melodies that predicted Star Wars, but I failed). And finally, you have another wonderful (if lighter) effort from director William Wyler, who probably couldn’t have made a truly terrible film if he tried.

How to Steal a Million

Advanced Style Warning: White fishnets will make you look ill, not chic. Proceed with caution.

How to Steal a Million

The world is darker without this in it.

How to Steal a Million

My kingdom for this hair volume.

Remember what I said about smiting my cynicism with Audrey? I feel good just looking at these screenshots, let alone watching the movie! This is one snack I can really recommend. It’s not a low-fat snack or a particularly filling one, but every once in a while, don’t you just deserve a sweet treat?

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