“Hang on a minute, lads …. I’ve got a great idea !”
This Michael Caine thriller hasn’t a single cinematically significant or profound moment. Isn’t that a great idea?
The heist caper crime sub-genre began as serious drama (The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi) but soon mutated into a freewheeling escapist format, with ever-more complex and preposterous robbery schemes. The brains behind the operation usually comes up with a foolproof plan that stumbles or fails due to dumb luck or the human element… remember Sterling Hayden’s shocked disbelief at the finish of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing? The measure of a caper tale is always how the thieves react when the plan suddenly goes haywire — really smart crooks improvise on the fly. We come to think that they’ve earned their loot, while indulging larcenous fantasies of our own. Would we have the nerve to pull off anything as daring?
Peter Collinson’s 1969 THE ITALIAN JOB is a lavish production that doesn’t mind being a borderline comedy. In fact, it’s more or less a party picture through and through. Star Michael Caine had already taken part in the jokey caper romp Gambit, and in this picture he sends up his suave screen image. His dandified crook Charlie Croker has his cool act on, but in action tends to be hit and miss. The pressure of the heist takes his toll, especially when his team of thieves shows as much discipline as the average gang of sports hooligans. When his boys cause trouble, he stands to attention, points an authoritative finger and barks out, “Right !” Then he can’t think of what to say next.
And Charlie Croker ought to be a bit anxious, for he’s trying to pull off the most unlikely super crime to date: a robbery of millions in Chinese gold, to be snatched in downtown Turin, Italy, in a traffic jam specially arranged by Charlie Croker’s daffy computer genius. How will the thieves make a clean getaway? Charlie’s team of lunatics will drive three tiny Mini Cooper automobiles, each carrying 1/3 of the loot. Barely larger than Clown Cars, the Mini Coopers can drive on sidewalks and climb stairways. With a little help they even race through the sewers and across rooftops. The movie naturally seizes this as a grand opportunity for crazy stunts, as when the cars jump between the tops of tall buildings. Today’s computer effects negate these kinds of they-really-did-it thrills, but back in 1969 the sight of the three cars zooming through sidewalk cafes like furious ladybugs garnered major applause.
Caine’s ambitious crook must deal with the mob kingpin Bridger (Noël Coward), who masterminds the entire English crime scene from inside a maximum security prison. The heist, it seems, is really a case of English mobsters attempting to make fools out of their Mafia counterparts. Croker must pull off his heist under the nose of an Italian crime boss (Raf Vallone), who has a nasty habit of wrecking priceless collector’s sports cars with a bulldozer, and sometimes their drivers as well.
The tone of the film veers between relatively low-key farce and flat-out cartoon absurdity. Bridger is hailed by the cell block with a deafening chant; he waves back as if he were the Queen of the realm. The Union Jack becomes a main design theme, as the Mini Cooper mob is disguised as a football team. The three cars are painted in the national colors; they race through Milan in tight formation, showing off the precision of the stunt drivers. They even skid in tight formation. They vault down the steps of a famous church, interrupting a wedding in progress.
The craziest note comes when Croker’s computer hacker (and asylum habitué) Professor Peach is revealed to be none other than comedian Benny Hill. The pudgy genius can take control of the city’s entire traffic system, yet he exhibits a stupid grin and a marked oral fixation. Not accustomed to Brit Music Hall vulgarity, we Americans couldn’t believe the scene in which the near-drooling Hill pushes the fat bottom of a grossly overweight Signora through the narrow doors of a bus: “Are they big? I like ‘em big!”
It’s all in a fun, colorful caper film that became a party picture. A sleek opening ballad sung by Matt Munro, On Days Like These lulls us into a false sense of ease, soon rudely interrupted. The beautiful Italian-flavored ballad is by composer Quincy Jones, who shows his versatility with bouncy Brit themes as well.
Before the show, Ben Mankiewicz brought out Mister Quincy Jones himself, and went through a quick discussion of the great composer’s impressive film career, starting with The Pawnbroker in 1965. Jones talked about his upbringing and his work with practically every noted musician of the last fifty years, including candid appraisals of tough taskmasters like Frank Sinatra and Richard Brooks. He also had plenty to say about the music for THE ITALIAN JOB, explaining that star Michael Caine helped him to understand Cockney Rhyming speech. The song “The Self Preservation Society” has often been assumed to be an authentic Cockney composition.
Sure enough, THE ITALIAN JOB looked fabulous on the giant Egyptian Theater screen, in a very wide ‘scope framing and apparently a beautiful new digital master with stereophonic audio. Michael Caine and a gallery of exotic motorcars shone brighter than ever. This is the kind of ‘fun’ movie one can’t expect to see revived at a museum screening, which means that the TCM Classic Film Festival has scored another victory for the enjoyment of popular film entertainment.
The esteemed Mr. Jones is a special guest of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, and will be making a personal appearance before the film to talk about his varied career.