This is the plot: A con man is released from prison and, posing as a computer programmer named Caesar Smith, manages to finagle his way into the British branch of an American corporation named Ta-Can-Co. Once he’s figured out (by accident, as it happens) how to hack into the computer system running the corporation’s finances, Smith proceeds to send checks to a number of small companies located throughout Europe, all of which are fronts for himself. Eventually, the scheme has to fall apart, and Smith’s downfall – and his redemption – come in the shape of Patty Terwilliger, his neighbor in the apartment building where he lives and, for a while, his incompetent secretary.
Hot Millions was apparently one of the sleeper hits of 1968, although I didn’t see it for the first time until it appeared on television three or four years later. It’s been largely forgotten since then, and it’s not prominent on the resumes of anyone involved in its making. I’ve only seen it three times, at most. And yet, if anyone over the last 45 years had asked me for the name of one of my favorite little-known comedy films, Hot Millions would be high on the list.
The cast has a lot to do with it. The two Americans in the film, Karl Malden (as the ambitious Vice President who hires Caesar Smith in the first place) and Bob Newhart (as his right-hand man, whose suspicion and jealousy of Smith are evident from the beginning) are superb. Both characters have motivations that are endangered by Smith’s presence: Malden’s wants to slide into the seat of the company’s President when the latter has shuffled off this mortal coil, and Newhart’s is trying to get somewhere with Patty Terwilliger, who is obviously more attracted to Smith. They both give strong performances.
Two actors have cameo roles: Robert Morley is the real Caesar Smith, a gentleman looking for the slightest excuse to chuck his high-stress computer job and cultivate moths; and Cesar Romero has a frankly meaningless little role as a customs agent in Brazil.
It was this film that introduced me to Maggie Smith. As Patty Terwilliger, the 34-year-old Smith is a walking disaster area. She speaks in a nasal whine, she can’t keep a job for more than a few days, she’s completely devoid of self-confidence; the one thing she can do pretty well is play the flute. She can invite one man to dinner in order to avoid another man’s attentions and then forget entirely about the invitation when the first man comes knocking on her door. One scene lodged in my mind for years afterward: she’s been assigned to Caesar Smith as his secretary, and one day he opens the door to his office to find her standing in her underwear, festooned with typewriter ribbon. (She took off her dress because she didn’t want to get ink on it.) From that moment, I was in love with Maggie Smith, an unrequited love that has lasted to this day. And for her next film, The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie, she would receive the first of her two Academy Awards.
Most importantly, though, there is Peter Ustinov. I have no idea how well he’s remembered these days (he died in 2004 at the age of 82), but in the 1960’s he was a huge (in every possible way) international star, and one of my idols. This was a man whose first appearance on the professional stage, when he was 17, captivated most of the London critics; whose first two plays appeared simultaneously in London’s West End theaters shortly after he turned 21; who wrote a screenplay (The Way Ahead) for David Niven while both of them were in the British Army during World War II and Private Ustinov was serving as personal assistant to Lieutenant-Colonel Niven. He was a prolific writer: well over a dozen plays, a handful of novels, two volumes of short stories, a wonderfully entertaining autobiography. He was a brilliant character actor, winner of two Academy Awards (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and a gifted director. He spoke five or six languages fluently, he was an effortless mimic of people and things, and one of his tours de force consisted of his impersonating all the instruments of the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Ustinov was also considered the greatest raconteur in (at least) the English language, and it was in this capacity that I first came to admire him when I was a kid. He appeared on a lot of television talk shows, he spoke in perfect sentences and he was always highly intelligent and reliably funny. The English television host David Frost had a nightly prime-time talk show in New York, and one night his only guest, for ninety minutes, was Peter Ustinov. It was a virtuoso performance, and an easy paycheck for Frost, who really only had to say, “Good evening, Peter, how are you?” and then sit back and keep his mouth shut.
Peter Ustinov was one of the few celebrities I ever really wanted to meet for dinner, partly because he was so consistently entertaining, and partly (although I wouldn’t have said so at the time) because he seemed like a perfect role model for me: multi-talented, urbane, witty, literary. In fact, we probably had more in common than I thought. I was always talented at a number of things – writing, singing, performing – but never good enough, or at least assiduous enough, at any one thing to concentrate on it. Especially as a teenager and young man, I was intellectually arrogant but emotionally inarticulate. And, as it happens, and as I learned much later, Ustinov had all these qualities as well.
He never did write the one great play or novel or give the one great performance that everyone (particularly himself) had expected from him. Something held him back. One of his obituaries noted that he was always uncomfortable expressing passion. As an actor, he could do witty, he could do angry, he could do self-deprecating, but, perhaps because his bulk and lack of physical attractiveness limited him so much to character roles, he really couldn’t do love. (For what it’s worth, he was married three times.)
Which is why Hot Millions is such an oddity in his career, and why it means so much to me. It’s the only film of his, as far as I know, in which he’s the romantic leading man, although in this case I used the word “romantic” in a highly specific way. He’s still large and baggy-looking, he uses a droning “suburban” voice, I don’t recall that he ever uses the word “love” in the film, but Caesar Smith’s almost accidental wooing and winning of Patty Terwilliger constitutes one of the great low-key romances in film history.
There’s another scene in the film, about halfway through, that I’ve always remembered. Smith tells Patty that if she draws the queen of hearts from a pack of cards, he’ll marry her. What follows, in a scene that probably runs less than a minute, I won’t describe, but it manages to be sad, frustrating and, by its end, incredibly exhilarating. It’s beautifully done, because it brings two lonely people together in a most original and moving way.
Ustinov and Smith give flawless performances, both individually and together. They appeared together in a couple of other films later on, in both of which Ustinov played the detective Hercule Poirot, and both were knighted in 1990.
Hot Millions was directed by Eric Till, an English director who worked mostly in television. If the anonymity of his other films is any indication of his talent, this is by far his best work.
The screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is attributed to Ira Wallach and Peter Ustinov. I can’t find out much about Wallach; he was an American writer with about four screenplays to his name, none of them particularly memorable. This is only a hunch, but I suspect that Wallach created the skeleton of the script and Ustinov fleshed it out. The characters are all slightly off-kilter, the humor is sly and understated – this is a very English film.
And I think it’s the film in which, before pulling back to do what he was most comfortable doing, Peter Ustinov showed us what he might have done.