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Peter Ustinov was a special gift to the world -- multilingual, multitalented, adept with music, drama and especially comedy. Much of his film work beyond the middle 1960s hasn't been worthy of his gifts, although I daresay he never let a show down, no matter what it was. We all enjoy his eccentric turns in Quo Vadis, Spartacus and Topkapi. He both directed and starred in Billy Budd, a remarkable achievement. 1
Just as Ustinov's really pioneering career turns (in film, anyway) were leveling off with iffy comedies (Viva Max), guest roles in Disney movies and voiceover jobs, Ustinov starred in and co-wrote Hot Millions, an MGM production filmed in England. Unevenly paced and directed, the comedy benefits from what was then a brilliant caper concept, and the delightful pairing of Ustinov opposite Maggie Smith, one of Britain's finest actresses then in her tenth year trying to establish herself as a movie star. Considered a long shot for romantic leads at age 38, Smith could turn any character part into solid gold. She and Ustinov make a truly odd, but endearing, couple.
The Hot Millions screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award; critics in 1968 seemed grateful for its traditional qualities, as a movie about funny people exchanging witty dialogue. This disc came out two years ago from The Warner Archive. Let's just say that I was remiss in not getting to it before now.
The story could be an Ealing comedy, gussied up for the swinging '60s. Releaed from prison, convicted embezzler Marcus Pendleton (Ustinov) swiftly embarks on his next adventure. He arranges to borrow the identity of a programming genius who has left the country, Caesar Smith (Robert Morley). Bluffing his way into the London office of TaCanCo, a large American corporation, "Smith" bamboozles executive Carlton Klemper (Karl Malden) into putting him in charge of the firm's new supercomputer. Despite the watchful eye of the suspicious chief programmer Willard C. Gnatpole (Bob Newhart), Smith slowly finds his way around the computer's safeguards. He sets up bogus companies in Paris and Rome and arranges for TaCanCo to start issuing hefty payments to them.
Smith also falls in love with his secretary, Patty Terwilliger. The maladroit Cockney cannot hold a job and is woefully incompetent as a secretary. She's eventually fired but the two decide to marry. Smith has almost amassed his million dollar score when the nosy Gnatpole begins to suspect that something is wrong with those continental companies "discovered" by Smith. When the real Caesar Smith shows up, marveling at the imposter's ingenuity at computer-age embezzlement, Klemper realizes that his corporate career may be over.
Much of Hot Millions is a one-man comedy act by Peter Ustinov, which will delight fans enamored of his quirky way with dialogue lines and puckish comedy reactions. Marcus Pendleton prepares the prison Warden's tax return with a look on his face that tells us he's setting the jailer up for a felony charge. Ustinov's performance as a comic con man is far better than average, and his screen personality is such that we don't look too harshly for errors of logic. At TaCanCo Caesar Smith and Willard Gnatpole (wicked name, that) are supposed to be computer experts, but big boss Klemper has them trotting around making major business deals that would seem to be some other department's responsibility. We like the way Smith sets up the various foreign drop-offices to receive TaCanCo's fat checks for services rendered, even if it seems illogical that those checks wouldn't ring bells in the corporate front office, no matter what safeguards Smith was using.
Hot Millions earns extra points for its convoluted caper gag. Of special interest is the TaCanCo computer, which is of course a large room where massive tape drives shuttle back and forth to retrieve data. Smith and Gnatpole type at workstations that spell out simple commands and messages in big block letters, and nothing else. The big security device Smith must circumvent is a single blue light bulb that indicates that the computer is locked down for the night. As in a cartoon from Punch magazine, after Smith has exhausted his brain trying to solve the problem, a charwoman demonstrates how she disables the light, so as to use the computer's heat to warm her midnight tea. The joke works, but perhaps not as well as it might have in an old Ealing comedy, with Alec Guinness.
Maggie Smith's clumsy working girl is forever doing awkward things or admitting her inadequacies, so it must be her enormous eyes and the smile she flashes that endear us to her. Unfortunately, Smith's character does an about-face, becoming a closeted financial genius to enable the film's comic denouement. It doesn't add up, and we wonder if the last scenes were concocted to satisfy somebody's requirement that criminals not succeed in their crimes.
Karl Malden is dependably blockheaded as the hypocritical Yankee executive, a character wrinkle that doesn't really pay off once the film settles into farce mode. In one dinner scene, we can't help but notice that Malden's nose seems to have become a bulbous "thing" that threatens to absorb his entire face. Is it just a case of bad lighting? Bob Newhart is dead on accurate as the jealous, territorially defensive underling, always looking for a way to pull the rug out from under Smith. But his character doesn't go anywhere either, as the script makes him something of a lecher as well. Having Maggie Smith dress up in a short skirt and go-go boots for one scene dos not come off as a great idea, although we do get a good look at the short-lived Apple Boutique, before the Beatles pulled the plug.
Laurie Johnson's music score is pretty much a washout, a fake "with it" set of compositions that try to replicate hip and happening vibes with an orchestral string section ... the main theme sounds like it should be supporting something like Murder at the Gallop. By 1968 the Carnaby Street thing had saturated the mainstream, which means that it was already on the way out. Controlled mostly by old men, British production persisted in pushing the Mod look well into the 1970s, making things like Hammer's Dracula A.D.1972 into instant eyesores. Memories of the droll humor and gleeful chicanery in Hot Millions are still good, however -- the show is a special favorite for quite a number of fans.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Hot Millions is a very clean enhanced transfer of this color comedy. Only a few establishing stock shots of Rome and Paris and planes in flight don't match the quality of the scenes around them. Included is a peppy trailer, well edited but still very much a thing of its time, as if the editors had all just watched an episode of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
Actor Cesar Romero gets full billing for a part that lasts all of 90 seconds. His "interesting" Brazilian customs official smiles at a bag full of suspicious money, but becomes incensed when a crazy foreigner tries to bring a can of cheap instant coffee into his country. Frankly, Karl Malden is just too earnest an actor to make the joke work properly. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, finally hit big the next year with what is probably her finest film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hot Millions rates:
1. Peter Ustinov rarities? Should you ever be able to find it, I recommend H.G. Clouzot's Les Espions (The Spies), a strange espionage tale at a rural French sanitarium. Besides Ustinov as a perplexing agent, there's a blacklisted Sam Jaffe as a tough, brutal (!) (!!) spy master.
I saw Mr. Ustinov in person once while accompanying a friend to a Beverly Hills travel agency. My friend got all gushy and said, "Gee Mr. Ustinov, you are one of the ten people in the world that I've always wanted to say hello to!" With six or seven people watching, Ustinov made a cute face, walked to a side door in the office, opened it, and whispered, "The other nine are in here!"
Sixteen years later I edited some TV spots for a Cannon movie starring Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, and had to direct a voiceover session with Mr. Ustinov from New York. He had a copy of the brief script. I said something like, "you've done this about a thousand times more than I have." He read the script twice, repeated the title several times and then spent five minutes keeping us all in stitches with funny accents. Never felt more flattered by a celebrity in my life. I'll bet that Ustinov made the same impression on practically everyone he encountered.
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T'was Ever Thus.