blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Hot Millions (1968, Eric Till)

Hot Millions is an entirely amiable, often charming light comedy about career embezzler Peter Ustinov’s attempt to keep embezzling in the computer age. The film starts with Ustinov getting out of prison, late for his exit because he’s busy doing the warden’s taxes. He was caught by the computer last time, and he’s out to show them what for.

Ustinov co-wrote Millions with Ira Wallach, and the film’s first half showcases him. It changes once Maggie Smith becomes more central—promoting her to co-lead—which is quite a promotion given Smith’s introduction is just an establishing sequence for Ustinov moving back into his old flat. He charms the pants off his landlady, apparently, as he charms the pants off pretty much everyone. The first act is just Ustinov methodically figuring out where to go to rip off a computer.

His investigation requires him to pose as a businessman, identify the best company and the best potential computer-man, then impersonate said computer-man to work at the company. Ustinov finds recent widower Robert Morley, sends him off on his life’s dream to catalog moths in South America and goes to work for Karl Malden at a concrete conglomerate. A computer runs all their books, overseen by suspicious vice president Bob Newhart.

Eventually, through contrived coincidence, Smith starts working for Ustinov—he lies to her about his name—and gets the attention of both Malden and Newhart. Unfortunately, it’s entirely likely they keep the offices too warm to encourage the female staff to wear less; both are lechs, though only Newhart actually pursues Smith. In an attempted escape from such a situation, Smith invites Ustinov over for dinner, where the two find they have more in common than just disliking Newhart.

Music. They have music in common. Don’t be crude. It’s a lovely sequence, probably the best directing Till does the entire film. There are lots of good scenes in Millions, but they’re usually working thanks to the script and actors, never Till. Both his pacing and his composition are off; the former leads to Millions dragging a little too often (it’s ten minutes too long, but there are also about ten minutes of relationship development for Ustinov and Smith missing); the latter means editor Richard Marden can’t cut the montages well. Marden’s got great timing on the montage sequences, set to Laurie Johnson’s cheerful score, but the actual shots are iffy. And then there are scenes where the actors jump around a little between takes. Till mustn’t have fretted shot continuity.

The plot involves Ustinov’s elaborate embezzling, which seems to have involved the computer, but Millions never gets too technical. The eventual solution to Ustinov’s first problem—disarming the alarm and its omnipresent flashing blue light—is a non-technical dodge. The computer stuff was all empty calories of red herrings; the film doesn’t even acknowledge Ustinov’s ability to learn this specific business machine and how to hack it.

While Smith gets a character arc—again, impressive since she doesn’t really have much time until the second half—Ustinov does not. But, since he’s lying to everyone about something (or everything), it seems like he will have some kind of comeuppance in the finale. Unless the script comes up with some major reveal in the resolve to provide cover.

Good photography from Kenneth Higgins, good comedic performances, and an affable vibe get the film through its slower patches. And Till’s disappointing direction. Ustinov and Smith are more than delightful enough to keep Millions going.

Plus, great Cesar Romero cameo in the third act. Not sure why they thought they needed a cameo for two scenes, but Romero’s awesome.

It is a little off-putting to see Newhart playing such a creep, even as he tries to work against the script and underplay it, which doesn’t work, but the effort’s appreciated. Maybe if Till were doing something, it’d work better.

But Millions works darn well, considering.

2 responses to “Hot Millions (1968, Eric Till)”

  1. Lovely to see Ustinov with Maggie Smith in a non Agatha Christie movie – thanks for bringing this one to my attention, I know someone who will love it. Thanks for joining the blogathon.

  2. Peter Ustinov was really a genius, and it was always fun to see him opposite other geniuses like Maggie Smith and Bob Newhart. This film is definitely going on my watchlist. Thanks again for joining the blogathon–this was great!

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