The ultra-chic, uber-sophisticated sixties mod and jet-setting caper movie reaches its zenith with Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969); a glib and voguish, inordinately rambunctious and principally enjoyable lark that blends the conventions of the English farce with the more death-defying thrills of a traditional action movie. Michael Caine is in familiar territory as Charlie Croker; the vane and arrogant womanizer out to steal a small treasury from right under the nose of the Mafia. Caine’s early career holds a dubious distinction; capable of engaging his audience even as the most appalling reprobate or social misfit.
His Charlie Croker really is an unreliable misbegotten; unrepentant in his deceiving of sexpot goodtime gal, Lorna (Maggie Blye) with a bevy of ‘birds’ (that’s women of easy virtue for all you non-Brits), seducing the lanky widow (Leila Goldoni) of an old friend, Roger Beckermann (Rossano Brazzi) even before her husband’s body is cold in its grave; springing Prof. Simon Peach (Benny Hill) – a manifest irresponsible sexual deviant with a fetish for large women – from his convalescence home, merely to exploit his other talents for the proposed robbery; breaking into the prison latrine (ballsy, to say the least) to consult with Mr. Bridger’s (Noël Coward), and finally, bossing his motley crew of hand-picked misanthropes (none of them dyed in the wool professionals) with his ‘cock of the walk’ manner, while arrogantly thumbing his nose at the malicious head of Italy’s crime syndicate, Altabani (Raf Vallone).
Add to this mix Quincy Jones’ rakishly exuberant score, beginning with the melodic ballad, ‘On Days Like These’ (featuring lyrics by Don Black and sung with glum grandeur by then popular balladeer, Matt Monro) and concluding with the utterly uproarious ‘Get A Bloomin’ Move On’ (sometimes known as The Self-Preservation Society) and The Italian Job is about as sleek and dicey a fantasy flick as any sixties mod-squad could make it. Interestingly, Michael Caine was not the first choice to star; Paramount’s Robert Evans suggesting hot new star, Robert Redford for the title role in his stead. Today, one can no more imagine the fresh-faced Redford pulling off Caine’s brashly charismatic, style-hunger slickster than supplanting Caine himself as the studly romantic ideal, instead of Redford, opposite Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (1985).
Like Michael Caine, director Peter Collinson’s participation on this project was an afterthought; producer Michael Deeley settling on the Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire-born scrapper who could simultaneously wield congenial good humor and nastily scalding diatribes at his cast and crew, Collinson’s changeable temperament seemingly balanced on a dime. Collinson’s career peaked with The Italian Job, a movie not particularly well received in the U.S., but one that has since acquired a renown cult following all its’ own. Moreover, Collinson was chiefly responsible for lensing driver, Remy Julienne’s fantastic stunt work; hair-raising chase sequences staged for maximum effect down tight streets, and across narrow rooftops of Turin’s cityscape; the indisputable centerpiece of the movie.
Except for an exhilarating race featuring the infamous red, white and blue Mini Coopers careening through Sowe Valley’s Sewer Duplication System in England’s Midlands, and the climactic bus crash, staged along an abandoned stretch of Ceresole Reale, Lago Agnel and the Colle del Nivolet, virtually all of The Italian Job’s iconic racing sequences were photographed in and around Turin. Director Collinson pieced together the rest of his story’s settings from a potpourri of locations; Ireland’s Kilmainham Gaol Prison and Cruagh Cemetery; Hanworth Middlesex’s Apex House as Turin’s command center, Upper Norwood’s Crystal Palace Sports Centre to stage dry run training sessions, and finally, Denbigh Close, W11 subbing for Charlie Croker’s fashionable London digs.
In retrospect, The Italian Job is something of a cross between a wicked lampoon of the James Bond franchise (Croker even drives a convertible Aston-Martin, the same model Sean Connery’s suave 007 used in Goldfinger 1964 – albeit, without the hard top and ejector seat factored in) and a sort of faithful homage to 1967’s superspy spoof, In Like Flynn starring James Coburn. Producer Deeley scored a minor coup in securing the services of noted wit, playwright, filmmaker, star and all-around bon vivant, Noël Coward for the plum supporting role of Mr. Bridger; a rather effete gangland impresario who micromanages mayhem from the comfort of his prison cell, while harboring a somewhat obsequious idolization of the Queen; Quincy Jones’ falling back on a few choice chords of ‘Rule Britannia’ whenever Bridger enters his private sanctuary, plastered in cutouts of Elizabeth II.
Our story begins with aged Italian sophisticate, Roger Beckermann (Rossano Brazzi – think Marcello Mastroianni: the emeritus years) racing his cherry red Lamborghini Miura around some cliff side twists and turns high in the Italian Alps. He’s obviously in a hurry; taking unnecessary risks that place him perilously close to the edge of certain death; the radio emanating Matt Monroe’s languid strains of ‘On Days Like These’. An approaching stretch of tunnel seems harmless enough. If only Mafia kingpin, Altabani (Raf Vallone) were not waiting on the other side with a small army of his goons and a bulldozer hidden in the darkness that effectively causes Beckermann to fatally crash inside the tunnel. Emerging with the crumpled Lamborghini caught in its serrated scoop, Altabani instructs the bulldozer’s driver to throw the smoldering wreckage over the steep mountain side, the car – and presumably Beckermann plummeting down a ravine and into the raging waters of a nearby river; Altabani tossing a funerary garland in after him.
Sometime later, dapper mobster Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is released from prison; met just beyond its’ gated walls by buxom gal pal, Lorna (Maggie Blye) who has not so cleverly stolen a rather flashy Rolls-Royce belonging to the visiting Turkish Ambassador. They’re happy to see each other…well, sort of. Charlie isn’t exactly the settling down kind, preferring the diversions of many women to the mere company of one…even someone as obviously devoted to him as Lorna. Picking up where he left off before going to jail, collecting his sleek, silver, Aston-Martin from the rental garage, and running up a tab on some high-priced duds to look the part, Charlie is surprised by Lorna with a homecoming party at a local brothel. Later, he rendezvous with Beckermann’s widow (Lelia Goldoni) at the Dorchester. Turns out Mrs. Beckmann isn’t the faithful type either. But she confides in Charlie her late husband’s plans for the daring heist that unfortunately attracted the attentions of the Mafia and ultimately led to his murder.
Viewing a pre-recorded 16mm film reel, Beckmann - already anticipating, and thus explaining to Charlie that he’s dead - further details his rather ingenious plan to steal four million dollars of Chinese gold made as a down payment to automotive giant, Fiat to build their new manufacturing plant in China. Beckmann’s plan involves breaking into and sabotaging Turin's newly computerized traffic control center so that all the lights in the city will seize at once, thus affording the robbers their subsequent getaway without intervention from the local authorities. It’s an ingenious bit of espionage and it intrigues Croker, though arguably not as much as the money.
After taking up with a trio of birds, Charlie is surprised by Lorna who threatens him with bodily harm. He confides his plans to her, before quietly breaking into prison to consult with Mr. Bridger (Noël Coward); a career criminal who operates the most lucrative gangland empire from the comfort of his prison cell. Their clandestine tête-à-tête inside the latrine disrupts Bridger’s regularity and, after dismissing Charlie’s plan outright, Bridger sends a trio of goons to rough Charlie up for his insolence. Thankfully, not long afterward Bridger – having reconsidered Charlie’s plan - has a change of heart. With Bridger’s complicity, Charlie assembles a troop to pull off the crime. His plan hits a minor snag when Miss Peach (Irene Handl) informs Charlie and his second in command, Keats (Graham Payne) that her husband, Professor Peach (Benny Hill) has since been institutionalized for committing perverse sex acts with their severely overweight upstairs’ maid.
Charlie needs Peach who, among his other attributes, is a computer expert. Not long after springing this randy old sod from the institution - with promises made about his seducing fat Italian women as part of his compensation - Charlie, Peach and electronics handler, Birkinshaw (Fred Emney) begin their training sessions with a small assemblage of getaway drivers. Packed into two Jaguar E-type sports cars and Charlie’s Aston Martin, this motley crew, along with Lorna, arrives at the same alpine pass where Beckermann met with his untimely end. Too bad Altabani is waiting for them with his goon squad and the front loader, crushing the two Jaguars and then sending Charlie’s Aston Martin tumbling down the gorge. To spare their certain annihilation, Charlie suggests to Altabani that if any harm comes to them, reprisals will be exacted on every Italian currently residing in Britain. As a slippery gesture of goodwill, Altabani cordially allows Charlie and his team to live.
Recouping their losses, Charlie secures three Mini Coopers, a VW bus and a larger bus as their new getaway vehicles. Bicycling under the cover of night to a nearby power plant, Charlie uses the bicycle to create an outage, temporarily causing the lights to go out inside Turin’s computerized command center – just long enough for Peach to implant the phony memory tape with the virus that will be downloaded into the mainframe and wreak havoc on the traffic signals all over town at approximately the moment the Chinese gold is being driven through town. Birkinshaw jams the closed circuit television monitors. On cue, Peach’s software kicks in, creating a horn-honking pandemonium in the middle of the afternoon. Altabani knows exactly who is responsible for this mayhem. In all the confusion, Charlie and his men strike, sending smoke bombs into the panicked crowd and forcing the armored car carrying the gold bullion into the cloistered entrance of the Museo Egizio, before locking the doors behind it.
Working under a tight deadline, Charlie and his men transfer the gold into their Mini Coopers before tearing off through Via Roma’s congested venues, then driving up the curved roof of the Torino Palavela, and later, racing around Fiat Lingotto’s rooftop test track, and finally, down the steps of the Gran Madre di Dio. The race concludes with a harrowing plummet into a large sewer pipe, the trio of Minis narrowly escaping authorities before driving up a ramp into the back of their waiting six-wheeler Harrington Legionnaire-bodied Bedford VAL coach. It all looks like smooth sailing ahead; word of Charlie’s daring thievery reaching the prison. Mr. Bridger is given a standing ovation by the rest of the inmates for his complicity in their audacious caper.
Charlie and his men unload the gold into the back of the coach, dumping their Minis one by one over the edge of the Alps. Too bad for everyone the winding mountain pass to Switzerland proves too narrow for the coach’s driver, Big William (Harry Baird) to navigate. Instead, he loses control, the back end sliding off the edge of the cliff, leaving Charlie and his team precariously dangling – literally, a cliffhanger! Charlie encourages his men to back into the coach’s cab for leverage. But the gold is weighing down the back of the bus. With each teeter it slides just a little bit more out of Charlie’s reach. After several failed attempts to crawl to its rescue, Charlie turns to the rest of his crew, suggesting he’s come up with another plan. What exactly it is, we’ll never know. The film ends with everyone still trapped high atop the mountain pass, suggesting to the audience that sacrifices will have to be made – the gold or, perhaps, their lives.
This rather auspicious finale was arrived at only after producer Michael Deeley became dissatisfied with the four alternate conclusions concocted by screenwriter, Troy Kennedy Martin. In theory, leaving everyone hanging – literally – also left room for the possibility of a sequel; Collinson and the writers prematurely assuming they had a big hit on their hands. The sequel, already being discussed, would have begun with Charlie and his crew still clinging to the edge of the cliff, and, a daring helicopter intervention by Altabani and his Mafia hoods. What was to have followed shortly thereafter remains a mystery. Although The Italian Job did respectable business in Europe, it was a commercial flop in the U.S. and plans for its sequel were immediately scrapped.
Viewed today, one cannot imagine a movie franchise coming of it after the end of The Italian Job. This movie is both an entity and an anomaly unto itself; a queer amalgam of directorial stealth and a testament to sixties pastiche destined not to have an afterlife. For one thing, the characters are too thinly drawn. Without Michael Caine and Noel Coward – both striking indelible big screen impressions, as variations on their already trademarked selves – The Italian Job completely lacks staying power. The other characters are a non sequitur: just transient forgettable faces equally as undistinguished in their performances. Collinson’s direction of the action sequences makes the movie what it is; glossy, garish, good fun; disposable entertainment made under the auspices of that generation’s ‘let it all hang out’ approach to life in general, and, with an overriding disregard for personal responsibility thereafter. The audience isn’t meant to ‘relate’ to these characters or contemplate any deeper meaning from their actions – merely to enjoy themselves…and, we do. Attempting to make something more of its’ premise by reverting to a darker approach to this already implausible scenario, while inexplicably relocating the action to Los Angeles for the 2003 remake, only served to illustrate how superficial the original movie is.
Does this mean The Italian Job is a bad movie? On the contrary, it’s a rather special one; unquantifiable at a glance and working its magic for at least its duration on the screen. Its’ afterlife has largely been predicated on the renewed appeal in Michael Caine’s movie career: eighty years young and still going strong. Bravo! But The Italian Job isn’t his best work, though he’s exceedingly good in it. The movie is, regrettably, a disappointment from the perspective that there isn’t really anything more to it beyond what’s there on the screen. It’s big and shiny noise is capable of riding over the senses like a steamroller, cleverly tricked out in its two larger-than-life star personalities (Caine and Coward).
Movies from the late sixties, throughout the 1970’s quickly realized there was a lot of mileage to be had by stockpiling often inferior plots with an all-star lineup of one-time, marquee-grabbing headliners. Irwin Allen all but perfected this formula with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. But The Italian Job lacks the disaster epic quality of the aforementioned to make it truly live on. Its afterlife is predicated exclusively on the magnetic pull of Caine’s movie-making legacy. Wipe this slate clean and The Italian Job is just a time capsule with whitewashed panache. You’ll love it for what it is. But you may be hard pressed to want to see it again and again.
The Italian Job comes to Blu-ray in a spiffy 40th Anniversary Special Edition only available in the U.K. – but region free and thus available for the rest of the world to enjoy via Amazon.com. Great news for fans. Better still are the results of this remastering effort. With exceptions made to a very slight hint of edge enhancement that briefly plagues the scene where Charlie, newly released from prison goes on a buying binge at his tailor’s, the rest of this presentation is rock solid and gorgeous. Flesh tones are spot on and colors simply pop from the screen. Fine detail is extraordinary and contrast, perfectly realized. Honestly, this is a reference quality disc with one minor caveat. We get two DTS English tracks – one in the film’s original mono, the other, a spectacularly re-envisioned 5.1 mix that will really give your surround channels some exercise.
For a 95 min. feature, Paramount has been exceptionally generous with the extras; almost 2 hours of audio commentaries (two separate tracks, in fact), and featurettes cumulatively making up one fabulous documentary to chronicle the making of this movie, plus a music video and deleted scene with optional commentary and two theatrical trailers. Bottom line: a great disc of a not altogether fantastic movie. Recommended for those who love this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)