How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

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Two For the Road (1967)

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Architect Albert Finney is on a road trip to Saint Tropez with wife Audrey Hepburn to meet a wealthy client. On the way, they reflect on their relationship, how they met, their marriage and the possibility of splitting up for good. Who was it said every road movie was an emotional journey? And this Frederic Raphael screenplay directed by Stanley Donen is all that, and more besides, influenced as it was by the work of French auteurs, chiefly Alain Resnais, whose non-linear mosaic-like approach also had its effect on Nicolas Roeg. So the contemporary scenes are juxtaposed variously with scenes from alternating phases in their 12-year long relationship, all emblemised by different models of  (enviable!) cars, to great effect. The leads are as magnificent as you’d expect (Hepburn was not even wearing Givenchy, shock horror!) and it really is as magical as you’d want for a film that sends them towards the glorious Med as their marriage spirals up and down. It’s a daring film for its time with adult themes, realistic depiction of the banality of marriage and brilliant locations for the armchair francophile. Extraordinary photography by Christopher Challis, a great score (and song) by Henry Mancini and a notable titles sequence by Maurice Binder distinguish this mid-Sixties gem. A wonderful meshing of talents, this was the final of the three films Hepburn and Donen made together after Funny Face and Charade and it’s not remembered as well as it deserves to be.

Roman Holiday (1953)

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Charm is such an interesting quality – so hard to define objectively and so hard to fake. And this film is teeming with it. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, then the subject of the HUAC witch hunt and written pseudonymously (Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for him and Trumbo’s credit wasn’t restored until 2003 on the dvd edition while the Writers’ Guild restored it in 2011) with John Dighton getting a co-writing credit. Director/Producer William Wyler wanted Cary Grant originally but he claimed he was too old – he would later be paired with Audrey Hepburn in Charade. In fact he probably saw that the role of the princess was the Real McCoy and would leave him in the shade. Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons proving unavailable (whew), Hepburn won her first major role on the strength of a screen test when they left the camera running and she talked about herself. Royal stories were au courant thanks to the coronation of Elizabeth II so the fable of a beautiful girl going incognito in Rome and having a day out in the company of a charming (and equally undercover) journalist, played by Gregory Peck, couldn’t have been better timed. The fact that Trumbo was writing in the circumstances of a man trapped by his own profession adds piquancy to this story of duty, responsibility and the desire for freedom. Peck knew what Grant knew – Hepburn was a star – and midway through the shoot did what only a gentleman would do, something unheard of, and asked Wyler to give the beguiling Hepburn equal billing. She is luminous in the role and they exchange looks that suggest something beyond pure characterisation – feeling. Everything looks wonderful and I’m pretty sure hundreds of thousands of people visited the city on the basis of this movie alone. Post-war Rome was having a moment, and what is perhaps most astonishing about this was the decision to shoot in monochrome. What were they thinking?! There’s a notable score by Georges Auric and it is flawlessly made at a time when the city was becoming known as Hollywood on the Tiber. Charm itself.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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This was the first movie poster I ever bought, for my very first home while I was away at college, a studio apartment that was even smaller than the one inhabited by Holly Golightly, that flighty Manhattan party girl. Heavily sanitised for contemporary audiences, there are still people to this day who don’t understand that she’s a prostitute. I wonder what they make of Paul Varjak? Do they think he’s breaking in 2E’s bed?! With the passing of time, Audrey Hepburn feels ever more like a sprightly cipher, hardly human, barely knowable. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this Truman Capote story was for, and about, Marilyn Monroe, and that he was upset that she wasn’t cast. There’s magic in this concoction adapted by George Axelrod:  from the first sight of Holly in the Givenchy dress; her wonderful cat (Cat);  the party; Holly singing Moon River; the courtroom mess; and the final, lovely scene when Paul (George Peppard) makes her see sense and finds Cat and we believe she might have a different kind of life. There is the opportunity to nit-pick and there are some that hate Mickey Rooney playing Oriental. And the scene where Holly gets the telegram about Fred is upsetting. It is this twist from happy go lucky to tragic that marks out the film as a major turning point in the star’s persona and indeed her future career. She hits a lot of different notes. But somehow director Blake Edwards sustains the lightness of touch that makes this Hepburn’s best-loved movie: there is a clarity and charm and brittleness that belie the churning emotions beneath. She’s not an icon for nothing. And I still cherish my poster – the original, theatrical, Sellotape-stained mess that it now is.

Funny Face (1957)

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The bookshop assistant who’s picked out to model by the world’s leading fashion photographer and uses a trip to Paris to try out her belief in empathicalism. Charm, wit, style, panache – and that’s just the costumes. Acting by Hepburn and Astaire, direction by Donen, photos by Avedon, humour by Kay Thompson, clothes by Givenchy. music by Gershwin. An MGM musical in all but name (in fact they all went to Paramount.) City by Paris. What more could you possibly want? ‘Smarvellous.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

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Alfred Hitchcock once said that the point about acquiring a stage play for screen adaptation was in its construction – so you shouldn’t change it. He was referring to Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott, which he directed with some degree of success. This too is a woman-centric work by Knott and is a typically plot-perfect thriller which was a huge stage hit.  Three drug dealers have to retrieve a stash of heroin in a china doll which Audrey Hepburn’s husband has carried as a favour for a young woman leaving the airport … and the twist is that when they get to Audrey’s basement apartment they find out that she’s blind. And she has to out-manoeuvre them to keep alive.  Hepburn is superb in a difficult role – she got an Academy Award nomination. Intrinsic to what the screenwriter wants to do in the best thrillers she does here –  turning an outrageous handicap into a processual advantage in a believable fashion. And how! The villains are led by an utterly psycho Alan Arkin whom I never trusted afterwards – having formed a childhood affection for him in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Richard Crenna is the sympathetic one and Jack Weston is the obvious one. There’s an obnoxious but useful little girl upstairs played by Julie Herrod and Efrem Zimbalist is the decent hubby. Terence Young’s direction is excellent – there isn’t a moment that lapses and the tension escalates scene on scene, assisted by a terrific score by Henry Mancini, who was pretty much Hepburn’s go-to composer by this point in her career. It was produced by her husband, Mel Ferrer, from whom she separated shortly afterwards. The screenplay was adapted by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Hammerstein. A wonderfully oppressive thriller.

Charade (1963)

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One of the great entertainments, from the pen of Peter Stone (aka Pierre Marton – get it?!) with a story by him and Marc Behm, and directed by the estimable Stanley Donen. Audrey is the befuddled widow whose husband turns out to have been in on a wartime heist and she’s expected to know where he stashed the loot; Cary’s the guy from the US embassy keen to help her out … or is he? With hubby’s ex-gang after her for the money, nobody is who they seem in this play on identity, a pastiche of thriller tropes that is betimes gleefully black – George Kennedy’s hook for a hand lends itself to a lot of interesting outcomes! Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the CIA man. Great romance, wonderful locations in Paris and Megeve, incredible stars and extremely slickly done. This is pure Hitchcockian enjoyment with the difference being that the gender roles are switched and we care about the McGuffin. On a meta level, the use of names is particular to people on the production – eg Cary is called Peter Joshua after Stanley Donen’s sons. Stone plays the man in the elevator, Jim Clark edits and Charles Lang does the incredible cinematography. Audrey is dressed by Hubert de Givenchy – qui d’autre?!  For lovers of Paris you get a travelogue of practically everything you want to see – the Comedie Francaise, the Eiffel Tower, Les Halles, the Theatre de Guignol … Watch for that classic titles sequence by Maurice Binder and music by Henry Mancini. This came out the week after JFK was assassinated so maybe its humour wasn’t loved that winter, but it’s going with me on that desert island for sure. Totally delightful.

The Nun’s Story (1959)

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On Good Friday in Ireland two things happen:  some people go to a long church service;  other people either shop, wash the car or watch this on TV. This is as close to a religious experience as I have ever had so now you know where I spend the day. Kathryn Hulme’s novel was a roman a clef in all but name about Belgian nun Gabrielle Van Der Mal aka Marie Louise Habets who makes all kinds of sacrifices to pursue a life ruled by the Catholic Church. Her ambition to be a doctor is punished by being sent to nurse in a mental hospital. When she is finally sent to the Congo she struggles with her spirituality and her friendship with a brilliant doctor (Peter Finch as Dr Fortunati) and gets ill from TB. On returning to Europe, the war is on, the Nazis have murdered her father and she is forced to make a decision. Brilliantly adapted  by Robert Anderson, Hepburn delivers a masterful performance under Fred Zinnemann’s conscientious direction.Hepburn did not win the Academy Award for which she was nominated, but should have. In reality, she befriended the subject of the film, which she prepared for meticulously, and when she had a near-fatal riding accident the following year it was the real-life Sister Luke who nursed her back to health. Now that’s showbiz. Stunning.