Beautiful socialite Penelope (Natalie Wood) met and married handsome banker, James (Ian Bannen) after a whirlwind courtship of just three weeks. However, it wasn’t long before James’ growing success left little time for his adoring wife, while glamorous women began throwing themselves at him. So Penelope does what any neglected wife would do: dons a disguise and robs her husband’s bank. Between robberies, she confesses all to her appalled, but lovestruck psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Mannix (Dick Shawn), while Lieutenant Bixby (Peter Falk), the detective assigned to the case, is similarly smitten. Penelope gives her loot away to the Salvation Army, because it isn’t money she wants, but attention. The problem is, when the time comes to confess all, no-one believes her.
Ah, Natalie Wood. A feast for the eyes and a heck of an actress to boot. With Rebel Without A Cause (1954), The Searchers (1956), West Side Story (1961) and a string of critical and commercial hits behind her, she was one of the brightest stars of the era. Yet 1966 saw Wood caught in a deep depression, following her divorce from actor Robert Wagner and a failed relationship with Warren Beatty. Producers Arthur Loew Jr, another ex-boyfriend, and Joe Pasternak sought to lift Wood’s spirits by casting her in this light-hearted crime caper.
Indeed, Penelope is so light and frothy it practically evaporates before your very eyes. Pasternak was a dab hand at producing this sort of fluff for MGM, although it feels as if the leading role was written with Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn in mind (particularly the playful dialogue and Givenchy references). After cartoon credits and an appealing, Beach Boys-style theme song (“Picture a girl who walks with the rhythm of a lady tiger”), the film gets off to an amusing start with a brilliant makeup job transforming Penelope into an elderly bank robber. Yet the central joke, that Penelope is so cute and winsome nobody believes she’s a bank robber, is far too slight as are the flimsy digs at psychiatry and the swinging sixties jet-set. The main plot fails to fizzle with enough comic energy, while Penelope’s flashback fantasies prove more fun. Arthur Hiller indulges some tricksy photography, including a neat circular dolly shot, during our heroine’s tenure as a beatnik songstress (unlike West Side Story, here Wood sings for real and quite pleasantly), and an early scene where the teenage Penelope is chased by a lecherous college professor provides the welcome sight of Wood running around in her underwear. Comedian Jonathan Winters cameos here, but trust me, you won’t notice.
The film originally concluded with a post-credits fashion show where Wood modelled more of Edith Head’s glamorous costumes, although the sequence never seems to feature in television screenings. While it’s slightly dispiriting to see a great actress reduced to a clotheshorse, Wood gives her all as the wide-eyed, adorable heroine who gets by through sheer chutzpah, but remains sweet enough willing to confess all to keep an innocent out of jail. All three male leads fall for her. Ian Bannen seems ill at ease, but it’s nice to see him young and suave, before he became typecast in more menacing roles. Peter Falk makes an amusingly diffident detective. He spars very well with Wood, making the film sometimes seem like an atypically glossy episode of Columbo.