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The joys of embezzlement

It all started because, while we were recording a podcast about the 1992 TV movie Ghostwatch, with my friend Lucy we started rambling – as we do – and ended up talking about dame Maggie Smith (yes, we tend to ramble far and wide). I mentioned how it always breaks my heart that most viewers know Smith as the old lady in the Harry Potter movies and in Downton Abbey.

I’ve always had a desperate crush for Maggie Smith, and after that chat, I decided to go back and re-watch the movies in which I first found out about this beautiful, extraordinarily talented actress. Travels with my aunt, of course, and Murder by death, the two Peter Ustinov Poirot movies, The Honey Pot, and also a small strange quirky thing called Hot Millions, that I had last seen in the mid ’90s, on the telly, on a long autumn afternoon, and I re-watched last night.

Released in 1968, Hot Millions is the story of Marcus Pendleton (Peter Ustinov, also co-screenplayer), freshly released from one of her Majesty’s jails where he served time for embezzlement. Marcus is a white-collar criminal, as smart and inventive as he’s suave and non-confrontational. The world of financial crime is changing, and computers are putting old style fraudsters out of work – Marcus himself was caught because a computer signalled his fraud.
So Marcus decides to become computer-savvy, and then use a computer for his next “job”.
He steals the identity of a legit computer wiz, and as Caesar Smith he gets himself hired by American conglomerate Tecanco, where he charms executive vice president Carlton Klemper (Karl Malden – in the role of the sort of man that brings instant coffee on a trip to Brazil) and raises the suspicion and hostility of vice president Willard Gnatpole (Bob Newhart). He is also assigned a secretary, daft Patty Terwilliger (Maggie Smith), who happens to be his neighbor, a young woman as good-hearted as inept.
Then he gets to work – subvert the company computer, set up a series of front companies, and embezzle a million pounds.

In case you are wondering, one million pounds in 1968 would be roughly ten million dollars today. A modest amount, by today’s corporate standards of greed and fund diversion.

The movie is a delight – the actors are obviously having a lot of fun, and it’s always a pleasure watching Karl Malden in a comedy role. Bob Newhart is perfect as the neurotic, frustrated Gnatpole and Ustinov and Smith are colossal.
There is a gentleness of touch in the developing relationship between Marcus/Cesar and Patty that puts a happy smile on your face, and there’s nothing you can do about it. These are losers that win, and it’s always good to see a movie in which good people – maybe a little dishonest, but who isn’t, these days – finally getting their happily-ever-after.

Along the way, there is room for a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces, and Cesar Romero almost steals the show in a tiny little role as a customs inspector. Robert Morley as the real Caesar Smith is also excellent.

This being 1968, computers are essentially a gimmick, but the rest of Pendleton’s set-up is extremely plausible and well researched – the use of social engineering to acquire information and steal Smith’s identity, the legwork to set up the empty box companies, the quick thinking to keep suspicion at bay. Everything is portrayed in the correct way.

And then there is Maggie Smith, young and sexy in a somewhat nerdy way, with a wonderful lower class accent that one wants to listen to again and again. With her string of dead-end jobs and her absent-minded down-to-earth attitude, Patty is a wonderful character, wonderfully played.

And yes, there once was a time in which a man like Peter Ustinov could be cast as a romantic lead, and most actors on screen were over 30. A time when a romantic comedy caper could teach you how to set up a front company and steal a million.

‘Ere! You watch your tongue! Any idiot can steal. I been em-bezz-lin’!

Marcus Pendleton

Yeah, right. Whole different game.

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