I was ten or twelve years old, and I was in bed with a bad case of the flu, and I caught half a movie on the TV one morning – on the old family Zenith black and white television. It was the end of the ’70s – 1977 or 1979. I watched it – there was Yul Brynner in it, and Yul Brynner was the guy from Magnificent 7 and Westworld, and that movie about the Czar’s daughter my mother liked. Yul Brynner was cool.
Later that day, checking the TV listings, I learned the movie was called Surprise Package, and forty years on, last night, I finally watched it form the beginning.
Surprise Package was directed in 1960 by Stanley Donen, whose other movies include the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the Grant/Hepburn caper movie Charade and Once More with Feeling, a rom-com featuring Yul Brinner and Kay Kendall.
Surprise Package is a comedy caper movie based on a 1958 book by Art Buchwald,a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with a side gig as a novelist (and sometimes as an actor, he appeared in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and, of all things, an episode of Mannix).
The story: Nico March (Brynner) made a lot of money in the gambling racket in the US, but his luck ran out and he’s being deported to Greece, whence he came as a kid of five. When his right-hand man betrays him, he finds himself on a small Greek island, penniless, and with only his lover, airhead showgirl Gabby Rogers (Mitzi Gaynor). Nico hatches a plan to rob another exile, the deposed king of Anatolia (Noel Coward), but there are more plots and conspiracies going on on the island, and someone’s out to kill him and Gabby.
Surprise Package is not a great movie, it was a low-cost B production, shot in black and white, and indeed, the first ten minutes left me aghast – the humor does not work anymore (did it ever), and the opening scenes feel contrived and tired.
But what the heck, there’s Yul Brynner playing a mobster, all in black and perpetually smoking a cigar, and Mitzi Gaynor is absolutely breathtaking – there’s an obvious chemistry between the two leads, and so I gritted my teeth and went on.
And I was right to do so – because as soon as the action moves to the island, the rhythm picks up. There’s Noel Coward playing the foppish, tragically languid King Pavel II of Anatolia, with his enormous villa and his local girls that thanks to him are discovering there’s more than goat-herding. There’s a gag of corrupt policemen, petty crooks, wannabe spies and Anatolian revolutionaries.
There’s a cursed crown that is said to kills whoever owns it (the first victim was Attila the Hun), but is worth one million dollars.
And while Brynner’s tough, rough gangster does what though, rough gangsters do, Gabby turns out to be not so dizzy after all, and develops a personality that complements the easy charm of the actress portraying her. The dialogues are suddenly a lot snappier, and the action is adequate. There is, in the whole set-up, something stagey, but it actually works.
And as a bonus we get Noel Coward and Mitzi Gaynor singing together the jazzy title song Surprise Package, and that’s the bit that stuck in my memory from all those years ago.
Not a great movie, therefore, but a fun caper, and a nice way to waste 100 minutes, forgetting that most of the action was shot in the UK, and Greece was never part of the plan: the scenery is beautiful no matter what, and the interior design of the King’s villa is beautiful.
Now I’d be really curious to try and read the novel, but apparently Amazon has only second hand copies from the US, and I’d spend five times in delivery what the paperback would actually cost me. This is one I’ll hunt down another time.
The movie is on rotation on various streaming services, and a mediocre copy can be found on Youtube. It’s worth watching just for the second half, and the Coward/Gaynor singing number.