austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

A mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound

From the Movies Watched While WiiFit Exercising file: 1968 or so's Hot Millions, starring Peter Ustinov and Bob Newhart, and go ahead, try to think of another movie starring Bob Newhart. (Correct answers: Catch 22 and The First Family, neither of which you remember.) This is a caper movie, that curious genre where we're supposed to root for people who steal and defraud because they're played by the more charismatic actors, and it works since of course it's Peter Ustinov doing the defrauding.

Specifically, Ustinov plays a small-time embezzler, released from the clink, who, realizing he needs money and that he was caught at his last embezzling round by a computer, decides the thing to do is learn computers well enough to have them do the stealing for him. And so he ends up charming his way into upper management at the London office of a multinational conglomerate (remember when we spoke openly of multinational conglomerates?), figuring out how to get the computers to steal for him and deflecting the suspicions of Bob Newhart's character.

You'll be pleasantly surprised to know the embezzlement is not the salami method. Ustinov's character embezzles the honest way, creating dummy corporations, having the computer send checks to them, and having the computer produce reports that the value-for-money received is fantastic. In maybe the second-most-brilliant scheme, Ustinov delays the Board of Director's plan to have Newhart examine one of his dummy corporations (an empty basement office in Paris) by pointing out there's no reason to waste time with a physical visit when they can just ask the computer how sound the company is. And the Board accepts it. It's a brilliant application of the confidence-man psychology and it works.

I think the most brilliant scene, though, has to be the conclusion of Ustinov trying to defeat a physical-security mechanism on The Computer so he can start adding dummy corporations to the database. Everything he tries to get around it (portrayed by a blue light which stays on whenever, apparently, the company's not being embezzled from) fails, sometimes spectacularly. But the cleaning ladies found that if they hit the front cover just right with their mopping buckets, the lid with the light pops open (and the light goes out), and the computer doesn't complain, and they can use the machine's spare heat to warm their tea. That's got to the ring of something which must have actually happened.

The resolution has Ustinov's character and wife giving the money they stole back to the company and the company happily hushing up the embezzlement for reasons of internal politics. That much I can believe, but where did they get the money? Ustinov's wife, that's where. He was so exhausted running around the Continent keeping his shell companies afloat that he was muttering company names in his sleep; she figured correctly that any company names that much on his head must be takeover targets by the conglomerate and so bought stock in them, and made a huge pile of money swiftly. It sounds like it would more or less work, but it also sounds like insider trading to me, or so close as to make no difference. I suppose the insider-trading laws were different in London before 1986, especially if you don't foolishly loose other people's money, but I can't help thinking that if the Crown's securities examiners found out about this they wouldn't get away with that.

Trivia: On 21 May 1941 at Ford's River Rouge plant 51,868 (69.9 percent) out of 78,000 ballots were cast for the CIO as official bargaining agent; 27.4 percent were for the AFL. 1,958 men (2.7 percent) voted for no union. Henry Ford had expected ``no union'' to win. Source: Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire, Ricahrd Bak.

Currently Reading: Shipwreck: The Strange Fate Of The Morro Castle, Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts.

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