Harry Dean (Michael Caine) has a plan to rob the richest man in the world, but he needs a woman to assist in his scheme. The ideal candidate is Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), a nightclub dancer in Hong Kong, which is where he visits to persuade her to go with him for the fee of five thousand American dollars. She doesn't speak a word, but allows Harry to outline what he wants her to do, and by the end of it not only will she have the money, but a British passport as well. All she has to do is pose as his wife, because she has the look of a woman the world's richest man knew very well...
Gambit was one of the umpteen caper movies that arrived in the sixties thanks to the international popularity of the French heist movie Rififi, a work which proved to filmmakers that there was nothing audiences liked to see more than a well-executed plan, no matter if it was the thieves carrying it out as long as they were amusing rogues. Actually, before the decade was out a grittier variation on the genre had made itself plain, but Gambit was strictly in the tradition of that French original, a light comedy with a touch of romance and enough in the way of twists to keep the viewers on their toes and with any luck marvel at the cleverness of the story.
Certainly this started promisingly, with an elaborate, near-half hour sequence that showed Harry's plan going like a dream, as Nicole is used as a decoy for their mark, zillionaire recluse Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), who lives above a swanky North African hotel. While he is captivated by her thanks to her resemblance to his now-dead wife, Harry slips into the apartment and liberates a Chinese art treasure, and they both get clean away thanks to the clockwork timing of their machinations. But then something else happens, and the publicity of the day centred around not giving away the first big revelation that occurs right after the whole robbery appears to have been successful.
That being we had been watching not a well-executed crime, but actually how Harry thought the whole thing would go, and he didn't envisage that he would never be in complete control. The point of this being that no matter how much you think you can guide a situation, there will always be a variable looming that threatens to upset your little scheme, and you cannot predict how any one person, never mind a collection of them, may react. MacLaine famously spent the first half hour or so of this entirely silent, as if to show in Harry's mind that she was simply a tool for him to utilise in the theft, like part of his selection of implements he will carry on the big night. But she's more than that.
At first she is bemused by Harry, but the promise of the cash and the passport proves too much to turn down and before long she is on the next plane out of Hong Kong, all dressed up like a Chinese princess with Harry posing as Sir Harold Dean, her husband. From these scenes we can tell that he has overestimated his abilities, and nobody is as impressed with his assumed title as he anticipated, although he does manage to get his room at the hotel, and then introduced to Shahbandar who immediately suspects something is afoot. It then transforms into a battle of wills where Harry is only half aware that he's been rumbled, and his would-be victim is perhaps a little too amused at watching him get deeper into trouble, leaving the audience wondering who will eventually gain the upper hand. There was a heist sequence as expected, and with this neatly put across with style, elegance and good humour, the main drawback being that it probably isn't half as satisfying to watch more than once. Music by Maurice Jarre.