There seems to be two kinds of caper movies, ones with several characters working together such as “Big Deal on Madonna Street” from 1958, or the romantic comedy type such as “How to Steal a Million,” the 1966 film starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. “The Happy Thieves,” released in 1961, falls in the latter category and stars the unique pairing of Rita Hayworth and Rex Harrison. The plot centers around a plan to steal an important and very large painting from the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.
The movie opens with Harrison, playing a character named Jimmy Bourne, lowering a painting from a skylight into a hotel lobby. He exchanges his painting, a forgery of the “Rokeby Venus” by Diego Velázquez, with the real painting. Velázquez’ actual painting hangs in the National Gallery in London, so I don’t know how it finds itself in a hotel lobby in Madrid; the filmmakers offer no explanation. Jimmy steals the painting and brings it out to his girlfriend (in the getaway car), Eve Lewis (Rita Hayworth).
Next, at an extended scene at the Madrid airport, the nervous Eve frets with Jimmy about getting the painting, wrapped in a tube, through customs and on to Paris. Their accomplice, a forger named Jean (Joseph Wiseman), meets Eve at the airport where they discover the painting’s been stolen from its tube. This throws the thieves into a tizzy, except the always controlled Jimmy. A telephoned threat from Madrid forces the trio to return to Madrid, where the fake Velázquez hangs in the hotel lobby.
It turns out that the art-loving but Francisco Goya hating Dr. Victor Muñoz took the painting from Eve, and he’ll tell the authorities unless the thieves steal Goya’s “The Second of May 1808” from the Museo del Prado. On that historic day, Dr. Muñoz’ family cast their lot with Napoleon, becoming ostracized by the Spanish government. Munoz thinks getting the painting would extract giddy revenge for all his family’s suffering.
Harrison brings the same kind of “where the devil are my slippers” Henry Higgins “My Fair Lady” attitude to this role, so it’s nice that Muñoz, played by Grégoire Aslan, plays such a smug and self-satisfied counterpart to him. Hayworth looks lovely and performs well as Eve, but I wanted her to have more confidence and sophistication. Harrison, as an international art thief and conman would attract the attention of Hayworth, but I doubt he would trust her to have such a prominent role in this level of thievery. The script points out that Jimmy and Eve are just “happy to do it.”