The film's title appears in the opening credits only in the form of a giant character, as would be used in a sign, being transported by a crane.
Set in Hamburg, West Germany, several criminals take advantage of the German bank privacy laws to use safe deposit boxes in a German bank to store large amounts of illicit cash. These include a Las Vegas mobster as well as a ruthless drug smuggler known as the Candy Man and a crooked overbearing U.S. Army sergeant and his meek-mannered partner the Major, who conspire on a big heroin and LSD smuggling score. Joe Collins (Warren Beatty), an American bank security consultant, has been spying on them and makes mysterious and elaborate preparations to steal their money (totaling more than $1.5 million) with the help of Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn), a hooker with a heart of gold.
Joe has Dawn phone in a bomb threat to the bank president, Mr. Kessel (Gert Fröbe), to create a diversion. Joe locks himself inside the bank vault with a gold bar normally displayed in the lobby to supposedly save it. The bank is closed and evacuated while Joe uses duplicate keys to empty the criminals' three safe deposit boxes into Dawn's large-size deposit box. (It is implied that Joe had obtained the necessary bank information and secretly copied the criminals' keys while they were engaged in sexual trysts with Dawn.) Despite the fact that Kessel insists on burning through the wall to rescue Joe instead of waiting for the time lock to open, Joe succeeds in the heist and is hailed as a hero for "preventing" the robbery of the gold bar.
The next day, the three criminals, one by one, discover that their boxes are empty, and thus they cannot complete their illegal schemes, nor do they dare to go to the police to report the thefts, since they themselves would then risk revealing their own dishonest pasts. The Las Vegas mobster flees the country while the others (Sarge, his partner the Major, and the Candy Man) search Dawn Divine's apartment — as she was their common link — and find clues that connect her to Joe. Sarge calls Kessel to get Joe's home address, but Joe is quickly tipped off by Kessel and he hurriedly sends Dawn to the train station with a suitcase packed with her take — $765,000 — promising to meet her later someplace out of the country.
A long climactic chase begins as Dawn gives the Major the slip at the train station while the Candy Man and the Sarge chase Joe across a rail yard and through the Elbe Tunnel. Joe escapes on a car carrier truck, lugging his suitcase, but the Candy Man and the Sarge follow and catch up in the morning at a frozen lake in the countryside, where the Candy Man crashes his car through the ice and drowns.
Joe escapes again by hopping a train, but during the night the Sarge catches up to him, only to find that Joe's suitcase contains nothing but a bottle of champagne and wads of newspaper. They conclude that Dawn double-crossed Joe by repacking the suitcases while he was getting the car, and the Sarge proposes a plan to Joe to go after Dawn together. But, upon drinking a swallow of the champagne, the Sarge instantly goes into violent convulsions and falls down dead. The bottle was one of three that the Candy Man had filled with a solution of concentrated LSD to sneak through customs earlier in the film.
An epilogue shows Dawn in a sunny climate in the USA, joyfully driving a gleaming new yellow Corvette, and then later cuddling in bed with an unseen someone. The other suitcase is sitting near the bed, and Joe's bomber jacket hangs on the coat rack. Dawn smugly explains to Joe that she was certain the criminals wouldn't kill him and leave themselves with no way to get the money.Warren Beatty as Joe Collins
Goldie Hawn as Dawn Divine
Gert Fröbe as Mr. Kessel
Robert Webber as Mr. North, Attorney
Scott Brady as Sarge
Arthur Brauss as Candy Man
Robert Stiles as Major
Wolfgang Kieling as Granich
Bob Herron as Bodyguard (as Robert Herron)
Christiane Maybach as Helga
Hans Hutter as Karl
Monica Stender as Berta
Horst Hesslein as Bruno
Wolfgang Kuhlman as Furcoat
Klaus Schichan as Knifeman
The soundtrack to the film was composed by Quincy Jones, with performances by Little Richard, Roberta Flack and Doug Kershaw, in addition to featuring the Don Elliot Voices throughout the score. Among Jones' bouncy, funky instrumental songs, his track "Snow Creatures" has been heavily sampled by numerous hip hop artists, including Gang Star and Common Sense.
Much of the film was shot in Hamburg, West Germany in January and February 1971. Other filming locations included Sweden, San Diego, California, and the Hotel Del Coronado (Coronado, California). The building depicted as the exterior of the bank was really the Kunsthalle, Hamburg's principal museum of art. The route followed in the chase scenes realistically takes the viewer through many of the city's unique locales.
The premiere of the film was on December 15, 1971, and it was released across cinema in the United States on December 17, 1971. It was released in Austria and West Germany on February 17, 1972, in Denmark on March 10, and in Sweden on March 27, 1972.
The film was received generally positively with many critics believing that the film was under-rated at the time of release. American film critic Roger Ebert, on reviewing the film on December 30, 1971, gave it a positive review. He described the film as having a "premise that has a beautiful simplicity to it" despite having numerous twists and turns that resembles typical heist films, yet described it as a "slick and breakneck caper movie that runs like a well-oiled drill".
He praised the performance of Beatty, describing him as "the best con man in movies, certainly since Clark Gable died. He is filled with deals, angles, things he has to pull you over in a corner to whisper. He can make you rich tomorrow, and himself, too, one of these days. And he has an unusual kind narcissism — unusual for an actor. He isn't narcissistic about himself, but about his style; he's in love with conning people".
Ebert approved of Beatty's on-screen chemistry and unique relationship with Goldie Hawn describing them as "weirdly interesting together" and the way they successfully moved together and interacted throughout the film. He also approved in the dynamic nature of the script and directing by Richard Brooks stating that "Brooks never stops to explain anything, never lingers over a plot, never bores us with lectures and explanations. Instead, all his characters plunge ahead, obsessed with greed."
A Channel 4 review of the film in the UK gave it 4/5, and, like Ebert, noted the pace of the directing and script by Brooks, describing it as "cutting more rapidly than usual, he kept the action moving fairly entertainingly for most of the movie, with includes a long and spectacular car chase". However, unlike Ebert, critic Christopher Null believed the following of the film tired after the first hour, remarking that, "Beatty and Hawn carry this fun little heist/comedy picture for the first hour, but then the whole affair gets a little tiring". He did, however, rate the film 3.5/5.
The film was released on DVD in 2008, concurrently with the CD re-release of the film's soundtrack, which had previously been released on CD in 2001.