Feb 26: ‘How to Steal a Million’ finds its composer at a creative crossroads

How to Steal a Million John Williams

In William Wyler’s heist comedy, John Williams is torn between emulating his contemporaries and forging his own style

Back in 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, John Williams was still “Johnny,” and Hollywood still thought a million bucks was a lot of money. How to Steal a Million is (probably) a step down for William Wyler, however UW Cinematheque is wisely honoring its significance to cinema with respect to Johnny’s career.

Torn between loyalty to her father and disgust at his forged artwork, Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) enlists the wits of Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) to steal back a faux Cellini Venus statue before a museum inspection finds him out. In his big feature debut, Williams goes along with Hepburn and O’Toole’s inevitable on-screen chemistry, toying with their mischievous flirtations from their first meeting — which results in the former grazing the latter with a bullet from an antique revolver.

Like Bachelor Flat, you’ll need a copy of the music for a thorough dive. The same Intrada re-issue includes two separate recordings totaling in at just under an hour’s worth of listening, including some fantastic piano solo pieces from a few restaurant scenes. And again like Bachelor Flat, there’s a YouTube suite for the primo material. The affected cool of electric guitar in “Simon Says” plays as O’Toole and Hepburn scope out their target museum in a convertible. “The Key” adds a rock’n roll groove to their plan of action with more sax and electric piano, and “The Can Can,” which is introduced with an errant whistle, is a fast-paced and frenetic ditty.

How to Steal a Million finds its composer at a creative crossroads and really, it’s a remarkable problem for Williams considering how “new” he still was at the time. Much of his comedic servicing is in the vein of Henry Mancini, blending 60s pop with neo-romantic tropes and jazz in piano-saxophone combinations. But vintage Williams is also at work. As but one example, the Elgar-inspired coronation in “March to the Museum” is a fine demonstration of his freakish ability to manufacture marches out of thin air.

what ought to stay with audiences this weekend is its divergent opening overture. It’s in this opening that Williams introduces his main motive, an alternately adventurous and romantic cascade. Brass and rapid-fire piano are mellowed out by silken strings and the reminder that there’s still love in the air for this heist comedy.

The other showstopper turns up as “Two Lovers” in the suite, a serenading counterpoint to the playful, sweeping titles. “Two Lovers” is slow and somber, which makes it hard to catch that both themes draw from the exact same melody. While the soundtrack suite offers a rendition with vocals that also appears on-album, the film’s instrumental recordings are superior and, more importantly, free of Leslie Bricusse’s tacky lyrics. Accept no imitations.

  • UW Cinematheque presents How to Steal a Million on Sun, Feb 26 at 2:00p in the Chazen Art Museum. Admission is FREE and open to the public.