Review: 'Gambit' is Perfect Showcase for Shirley MacLaine's Comic Gifts

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday January 20, 2022

Review: 'Gambit' is Perfect Showcase for Shirley MacLaine's Comic Gifts

In late 1966, upon the release of "Gambit," Michael Caine was just hitting big. Lewis Gilbert's "Alfie" was a smash, and Caine was about to be nominated for his first Oscar.

Shirley MacLaine, on the other hand, was a bona fide star, with three Oscar nominations under her belt ("Some Came Running," "The Apartment," and "Irma la Douce"). She had director and leading man approval in her contracts after starring in a string of comedy hits as well ("All in a Night's Work," "Two for the Seesaw").

Director Ronald Neame was a cinematographer, writer, and producer who turned to directing in the '50s and '60s, making a name for himself with "The Horse's Mouth" and "The Chalk Garden." He would go on to direct one of the biggest moneymakers of the '70s, "The Poseidon Adventure."

The screenplay for "Gambit" was written by Jack Davies ("It Started in Naples") and Alvin Sargent, who would win Oscars for writing "Julia" and "Ordinary People."

"Gambit" had formidable creatives.

The poster for the film read: "Go Ahead: Tell the End (It's Too Hilarious to Keep Secret) But Please Don't Tell the Beginning!" So, doing my best to skirt spoilers: The comic caper follows Harold Dean (Caine), a cat burglar, who enlists the help of Nicole Chang (MacLaine), a Hong Kong dancer, in an elaborate scheme to steal a priceless sculpture. Nicole is the key to the plot — I won't say why.

The first 30 minutes of the film is quite stylized, with the MacLaine character not speaking one syllable. When you realize what the narrative is doing, it's quite clever. MacLaine makes up for her silence in the remainder of the running time, much to Caine's annoyance. "I can't help it if my mind takes a tangent every now and then!" she bellows to an exasperated Caine.

MacLaine has great comic chops and she's at her best here, even when forced to wear some wince-inducing makeup (her character is one quarter Eurasian).

Neame directs with great flair.

The 4K restoration impresses, showing off the great colors of this lush Technicolor movie, which boasts great locales. And the sound is fantastic, highlighting Maurice Jarre's terrific score.

This Special Edition features a cornucopia of commentaries, so if listening to people wax on about cinema is your thing, you will be in Nirvana. The second audio track is by film geeks — I mean historians — Howard S. Berger, Sergio Mims, and Nathaniel Thompson, and they give a lot of good info, but the must-listen is director Neame's track, which is filled with great stories about the filming and the two leads. He gives MacLaine credit for the idea of her not speaking for the opening. He also says that after re-watching the film, he would cut out 20 minutes if he could.

"Gambit" was nominated for three 1966 Oscars (art direction, costumes, sound) and, despite some peculiarities, it holds up nicely all these years later as an unpredictable, often hilarious, heist romp, showcasing Shirley MacLaine's comic gifts.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Brand New 4K Restoration by Universal Pictures

  • Audio Commentary by Director Ronald Neame

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historians Howard S. Berger, Sergio Mims and Nathaniel Thompson

  • Theatrical Trailer

  • Optional English Subtitles

    "Gambit" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.