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Should I Watch..? The Italian Job (1969)
What's the big deal?
The Italian Job is a comic crime caper film released in 1969 and remains one of the most popular British films of all time. Directed by Peter Collinson, the film sees Michael Caine, Benny Hill and Noël Coward as part of a gang of thieves intent on stealing gold bullion from the Mafia in Turin with the help of three Mini Coopers and some very skilful driving. With its iconic soundtrack produced by Quincy Jones, the movie became a firm favourite in Britain and was heavily repeated on TV. It also led to numerous parodies and allusions in other productions as well as a remake in 2003 also called The Italian Job (1). Despite positive reviews, the film bombed in the US - Caine believed that this was due to a poor advertising campaign although I suspect the overly pro-British patriotism in the film might have had something to do with it.
What's it about?
Cockney charmer Charlie Croker is released from prison and immediately begins looking for his next big job. He soon meets with the widow of his friend Roger Beckermann, who was killed by the Mafia whilst driving through the Alps. Beckermann had plans for a massive heist - £4 million worth of Chinese gold bullion in the hands of the Mafia in Turin and the perfect method of escaping with the loot. Contacting his former cellmate Mr Bridger, who runs a vast criminal empire from behind bars, Charlie is given the green light to assemble the crew he needs to complete the job.
Recruiting computer expert Professor Peach and electronics expert Birkenshaw as well as a number of hired guns, the plan involves sabotaging the computer program that manages Turin's traffic control system to allow the city's roads to become completely blocked and thus prevent the police from capturing them. The gold would be loaded onto three Mini Coopers that would follow a designated route to avoid the traffic before escaping over the border into Switzerland while the rest of the crew would disguise themselves as football fans and rendezvous with them later. After all, how hard can it be..?
Professor Simon Peach
Release Date (UK)
6th June, 1969
Action, Comedy, Crime
What's to like?
The film could quite easily have been a much darker thriller but the cast prevent the film from descending into well-trodden territory. Caine gives a masterful performance as Croker, turning the character into a charming and genuinely amusing rogue with an eye for the ladies. He also displays genuine comic timing with some truly memorable lines - he's certainly funnier than Hill or Coward who both seem to stick too closely to their public personas. In fact, the first half of the film is a mildly amusing heist flick that Caine's charisma dominates. But then, the Minis arrive and everything changes.
The film goes from being a kooky comic caper to a thrilling and inventive car chase through some beautiful Italian scenery - all of it done for real. The chase is so good that you completely forget about the first half as you cheer on the crooks and find yourself helplessly singing Jones' wonderful soundtrack in full voice. If you're British (like I am) then the film's effect is profound, the celluloid equivalent of hearing your national anthem. It's bright, colourful and full of life and also has one of the best endings of any film in history.
- Fiat donated the film makers dozens of cars, hoping that they would replace the Minis in the movie as Mini's owners, BMC, had declined to loan them any vehicles. Fiat also allowed them to film at their factory where the famous roof-top race track scene was shot.
- The civil authorities in Turin also refused them permission to close the roads to allow shooting. However, the Mafia stepped in and shut the roads down anyway - meaning the traffic jam seen in the film and people's reaction to it was real.
- This marked the debut film appearances for Robert Powell (playing Yellow, one of the gang) and Frank Kelly who makes an uncredited appearance as a prison officer. Kelly is more famous for playing Father Jack Hackett in the 90's TV comedy Father Ted.
What's not to like?
The schism at the heart of the film does make you forget everything that went before it and frankly, that's a shame because there's a great little movie in here somewhere. The film has obviously dated somewhat - the computer systems governing Turin's traffic control looks remarkably clunky while Hill's perverted professor doesn't elicit the same response today it might have done back then. But then again, Britain in the Sixties was the place to be - we'd won the World Cup, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were conquering the world of music while London's Carnaby Street was the heart of fashion. Nowadays, it's only natural we'd look back at such a time with rose-tinted spectacles.
The only thing I can think of about The Italian Job I didn't like was... nope, it's gone. Even the film's opening with Brazzi at the wheel of a Lamborghini Miura listening to Matt Munro singing "On Days Like These" is a sequence that can't help put a smile on your face. It's like a Sixties version of Top Gear so if you're not a petrol-head then you'll probably find this a silly and implausible film. Who's gonna get £4 million worth of gold bullion into three Minis anyway?
Should I watch it?
Unashamedly British it may be but The Italian Job is a fine fusion of crime caper and unbelievable stunt work. The comedy is good, the performances are strong and while the story may flag a little in the middle, the thrilling finale more than makes up for it. This is indeed the Self-Preservation Society...
Great For: the British, Mini owners, the whole family
Not So Great For: the rest of the world, Italians, cyclists
What else should I watch?
I suppose one must mention the remake when discussing the original but that won't do the 2003 version of The Italian Job any favours at all. Devoid of the humour and charm of this film, the film spends about 30 minutes or so in Italy at the beginning and the rest of the time, it's more like The LA Job. The cast look bored and there is nothing memorable about it whatsoever. Suffice to say, I hated it.
Everybody loves a good caper and one of the best is Ocean's Eleven (2) which brings together a veritable galaxy of stars in Las Vegas for the ultimate heist. Of course, this was also a remake of the 1960 film Ocean's 11 (3) which brought together a veritable galaxy of Rat Pack members in Las Vegas for the ultimate heist. Sound familiar?
© 2015 Benjamin Cox