The Happy Thieves (MGM LE Collection) Review

Rex Harrison begins The Happy Thieves looking like an aged but reasonably dapper cat burglar as he removes a painting (Velázquez's Rokeby Venus) and then exits the premises to deliver the haul to Rita Hayworth, who's waiting outside in a convertible. She's nervous, he's cool and calm. Regrettably, this pre-credits sequence promises more than the 1961 film is able to deliver. It's not particularly snappy or stylish, and the art theft element is a ruse given far too much emphasis in a movie that really should be more character study than heist drama.

When things settle down it becomes clear that Harrison's character Jim Bourne actually specializes in deception, with breaking and entering only serving as a necessary part of his repertoire. This particular stunt was facilitated by an elaborate put-on that included Bourne leasing and putting his name on a hotel in Madrid so that he could meet a duchess (Alida Valli), steal the painting and replace it with a forgery. The prize? $400,000, assuming Hayworth's Eve Lewis is able to smuggle the rolled-up piece of art into Paris. Tough break for her and Mr. Bourne when they discover that the tube was switched at some point, a development that helps move the picture in the direction of its main plot involving blackmail and yet another very expensive painting someone wants stolen. The impetus for this planned theft, involving an absurd vendetta against Goya, is really rather silly, lacking in just the right touch to give it the proper amount of irreverence.

This Goya painting, The Second of May 1808, that Dr. Victor Munoz (Gregoire Aslan) wants removed from its museum is extremely large, and the set-up and planning of the robbery by Bourne, Eve and their forger Jean (Joseph Wiseman) keeps the film busy, though with minimal verve or satisfaction for the viewer. Previously, out of nowhere and just as Eve is about to wash her hands of Bourne, the two lead characters marry and share a bed in a train car. (One may have required the other.) The somewhat intimate moments involving Bourne, including his earlier, character-defining comment that "[t]here's a touch of larceny in all successful men," give a hint as to what The Happy Thieves might possibly could have been in better hands. Richard Condon's first novel The Oldest Confession was the basis for the film, which was directed by sub-middlebrow veteran George Marshall. Most of the bite of the Condon book, not to mention the spirit, seems to have been filtered out of the screenplay. What remains has a different sort of sadness to it, and not the one Condon would have intended for his story.

The lead couple portrayed by Hayworth and Harrison are now much older, and it would seem that the actors had outgrown their roles. Harrison looks tired and conveys little evidence to the contrary. Faring worse, the once beautiful Rita Hayworth appears tortured at times. That the actress who struggled so terribly with alcohol is playing a character with a similar affliction adds to the discomfort, especially when she's chastised by Harrison for drinking. There's a story recounted by Charlton Heston in his autobiography, where Hayworth and her husband James Hill, whose joint production company produced The Happy Thieves, were at dinner with Heston and his wife one night during the shoot. As Heston remembered it, Hill was relentless in his verbal abuse of Hayworth, who was helpless to resist. Whether those domestic problems were the reason or something else, Hayworth looks constantly unhappy in the film.

She was in her early forties but her face didn't age gracefully, and the toll of alcohol and discontent can be read in it. Around four years later Hayworth looked further eroded when she joined her Gilda co-star Glenn Ford for a few scenes in The Money Trap, again playing an aged woman who frequently turns to the bottle. That was probably her last role of distinction, and she handled that character better than the less defined Eve in The Happy Thieves. Hayworth doesn't deserve the whole of the blame here, but she is terribly miscast and has more chemistry with her drink than the equally unwise choice of Harrison. In short, a poor adaptation of a highly regarded book. Luckily for Richard Condon, the next time Hollywood decided to film one of his novels things worked out much better - The Manchurian Candidate as directed by John Frankenheimer would be released the following year.


The Disc

A single-layered DVD-R of The Happy Thieves can now be purchased as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. I commented before in a review about how, despite nice cover art, these MGM LE Collection releases look a little bootleg-ish, especially on the back and the spine. An apparent quality control failure doesn't help that cause here, as the film's title is misspelled The Happy Theives on the spine.

The usual disclaimer that the film was "manufactured using the best source material available" is flashed on the screen prior to things getting underway. The aspect ratio used is 1.66:1, and it's enhanced for widescreen televisions. Lots of grain and dirt appear early on but do settle down as the film progresses. Some mild instances of similar damage marks pop up on occasion. There are also what appear to be two vertical lines running the length of the image on the far right side of the frame for the entirety of the film. Contrast, which might be described as muddy, could have fared better and finer detail would have been nice. It's still an acceptable, progressively transferred image but hardly one of any special distinction or beauty.

The English mono has a light hiss in the track from time to time. This imperfection in the audio is still preferable to that weird and awful boing sound repeatedly used in the score. I think that's a jaw harp? Regardless of the instrument, it's in the wrong movie. No subtitles are offered.

There are also no supplements.


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