How to Steal a Million (1966)

Fifty-five years ago today, the film How to Steal a Million premiered. There is a beautiful recipe for making perfection: Audrey Hepburn wearing Givenchy, filmed in France in the mid 60s, and directed by William Wyler. It really is absurdly lovely.

Title: How to Steal a Million
Directed by: William Wyler
Produced by: William Wyler and Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay by: Harry Kurnitz
Based on: Venus Rising 1962 story in Practise to Deceive by George Bradshaw
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Eli Wallach, Hugh Griffith, and Charles Boyer
Music by: John Williams
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Edited by: Robert Swink
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Costume Design by: Hubert de Givenchy
Release date: July 13, 1966 (United States)
Running time: 123 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English

Prominent Paris art collector Charles Bonnet forges and sells famous artists’ paintings. His disapproving daughter, Nicole, constantly fears that he will be caught. Late one night at their mansion, Nicole encounters a burglar, Simon Dermott, holding her father’s forged “Van Gogh.” She threatens him with an antique gun that accidentally fires, slightly wounding his arm. Wanting to avoid an investigation that would uncover her father’s fake masterpieces, Nicole does not contact the police, and instead takes the charming Simon to his posh hotel, driving him in his expensive sports car.

For an important exhibition in Paris, Charles is lending to the Kléber-Lafayette Museum his renowned “Cellini” Venus statuette that was actually sculpted by his father. Charles has never sold it because scientific testing would reveal that the “million-dollar” artwork is fake, and his entire collection would then be suspected. Charles signs the museum’s standard insurance policy, unaware that it also includes his consent to just such a forensic examination. But withdrawing the Venus from the exhibition would also raise suspicions. Nicole, desperate to protect her father, seeks out Simon and asks him to steal the Venus before the examination. Unknown to Nicole, Simon is actually an expert consultant and investigator hired by major art galleries to enhance security and detect forgeries. He was investigating Charles’ art collection when Nicole first encountered him. He agrees to help Nicole, though he initially believes that it is impossible to steal the Venus in any case.

American tycoon Davis Leland, an avid art collector, becomes obsessed with owning the Venus. He meets Nicole solely to purchase the statue, but instantly falls in love. At their second meeting, he proposes marriage, but Nicole must rush off to the museum for the “heist”, so she accepts his ring.

Nicole and Simon hide in a utility closet until closing time. After observing the guards’ routine, Simon repeatedly sets off the security alarm until the “faulty” system is finally disabled. Simon notices Nicole’s resemblance to the Venus, and she admits that her grandfather sculpted the statuette and that her grandmother was the model. Simon steals the Venus, and Nicole, disguised as a cleaning woman, hides it in a bucket. When the Venus is discovered missing, they escape in the ensuing chaos.

Following the robbery, Leland seeks to acquire the Venus by any means. Simon connives to “sell” it to him on condition that it never be displayed to anyone and that he never contact the Bonnet family again; Leland should expect to eventually be asked for payment. Simon secretly adds Nicole’s engagement ring to the package.

Nicole meets Simon to celebrate their success. Simon says the Cellini Venus was his first heist too, reveals his true identity of a private detective specializing in art forgeries and declares his love for Nicole. He then meets Charles and assures him that the statue will be safely out of the country. Charles is so relieved that he is only momentarily disappointed when Simon says that the purchase price was zero dollars. (And because the statuette was never authenticated, there is no insurance.) Simon tells Charles that one of them must retire, and Charles agrees to give up forgery.

As Nicole and Simon prepare to elope, a collector who had earlier admired Charles’s new “Van Gogh” arrives at the Bonnet residence and is warmly welcomed by the wily forger. Nicole says the man is a “cousin.” Simon admires her newfound flair for lying.

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