***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Like the other notable twist-laden Michael Caine movie Sleuth I can’t say much about Gambit without spoiling it. During the first 25 minutes, I was doubting if I was even going to enjoy the film. The characters appeared to be forgettable and two dimensional. Michael Caine outwits everyone but in an uninteresting manner while Shirley MacLaine never speaks nor shows any emotion or vulnerability with Herbert Lom plays an unimaginative caricature of a reclusive, eccentric millionaire. Like Sleuth on first viewing I thought that film was making a mistake during a certain section; with Gambit I felt the same way about the first section of the movie.
However, when it is revealed these first 25 minutes are just the idealised scenario for a heist played out in Michael Caine’s head I had the biggest smile on my face and the reaction of “You clever bastards!”. All of a sudden this seemingly boring film became fascinating with the scenario I had just seen played out now occurring again with a welcome sense of realism and with interesting, flawed characters, with much of the humour stemming from the differences between fact and fiction. It reminded of that popular internet meme ‘expectation/reality’ and came off to me like a satire of sorts on unimaginative writing and characters. Watching the film a second time I can now spot the moment of foreshadowing such as Michael Caine saying to his accomplice “Now pay close attention”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a heist movie without suspense and does the third act deliver, full of nail-biting moments and clever solutions.
Released in 1966 just prior to the rise of the New Hollywood movement, Gambit sees the final days of that distinctive old Hollywood glamour. Gambit is a very exotic movie at that with Shirley MacLaine being presented in the image of a goddess throughout and even her more common looking attire during the heist at the end is exceedingly stylish. Plus who can look more dapper as a cat burglar than Michael Caine? The back and forth between Caine and MacLaine is pure heaven. There are few other actresses with as playful an on-screen persona as Shirley MacLaine while Caine gets annoyed by her giddy, childlike attitude. I don’t care how many films I see which contain the “they hate each other but secretly love each other” dynamic, as long as it’s between a screen pairing with superb chemistry then I’ll never tire of seeing it.
Land of the Rising Fun!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Oh man, these are the kinds of quirky film concepts I live for, definitely up there with films like The Major and the Minor, The Whole Town’s Talking or Sylvia Scarlett. I’ve never previously been a Shirley MacLaine fan but My Geisha may have converted me. Unlike many dual identity films, I actually found the premise here believable, in that Lucy’s husband Paul Robiax (Yves Montand) wouldn’t recognise her disguised as her alter ego geisha by the name of Yoko – At times I found myself MacLaine is pretending to be a Geisha. Ok, the illusion might not work for everyone but it did for this viewer. Also on a more superficial appraisal, omg Yoko is so cute! I was also surprised and delighted that Edward G. Robinson actually has almost as much screen time as MacLaine, making the two a great comedic pairing. I stated in my review of The Whole Towns Talking (1935) that Edward G. Robinson appeared in some very quirky comedies in his career but this film just furthers that statement, My Geisha is by far the quirkiest of them all.
However, it’s not just goofiness for the sake of goofiness, the dual identity set up actually allows for a deep and complex plot. For starters it examines the business of film by acknowledging the dilemma of casting white actors as non-white characters; you can’t get a large budget for a film unless it stars a big box office draw, most of who in the early 1960’s where white. The other surprising area of depth that comes out of the goofy plot is the examination of the husband’s ego, tired of being in the shadow of his wife’s success and desiring the more conservative nature of Japanese society, a nature which Robaix acknowledges is disappearing from Japan as the country becomes increasingly westernised. Another point of interest if the moment when Edward G. Robinson’s character receives the news that Lucy’s husband has discovered the truth about Yoko, Robinson asks to be taken to the fourth floor of the hotel. The Japanese tend to avoid the use of the number 4 due to superstitions regarding the number as unlucky.
My Geisha would unsurprisingly not be made today would be seen as politically incorrect with its use of so-called “yellowface”, not to mention Bob Cummings in the role of somewhat creepy adulterous movie star Bob Moore who doesn’t quite understand boundaries. Yet even a film of this manner was made today, you know the film world come to a halt for 20 minutes when Lucy’s secret is revealed (otherwise known as the dreaded cliché of the liar revealed) in which one character would tell the other about how they’ve been betrayed and they never want to see each other again even though they get back together at the end. Not here though, when Lucy’s husband discovers she is Yoko (which I should add is done a very clever manner) he quietly accepts that he was fooled and there’s no big pointless, drawn-out argument scene. Sorry, classic movie fanboy rant.
I wonder what the Japanese reaction to this was. I assume this is an idealised, tourist brochure version of Japan but either way this film sure looks beautiful. I believe this could likely be credited to the surprising choice of director, Jack Cardiff, normally more famous for his work as a cinematographer. The entire film is a feast for the eyes and ears with its eye-popping colour and score by Franz Waxman (even the film within a film looks incredible and is itself emotionally moving). Not to mention to the costume design by the great Edith Head, it’s clear in classic Hollywood films that costumes were no afterthought. My Geisha is another obscure, quirky gem which I adore.