Updated: Jan 15
There’s not really a great deal left to say about something as iconic as The Italian Job (1969). Cinematographically speaking, the film is incredibly stylish and elegant. The opening credits are played out to the dulcet tones of Matt Monro, whilst a good looking chap fondles his sunglasses and opens the taps on the first of many exquisite cars to be featured in the film (in this instance, a Lamborghini Miura). The subsequent, premeditated destruction of car and driver by the ‘Mafia’ represents an unexpected and powerful tonal shift; a technique director Peter Collinson employs more than once, to great effect. Michael Caine’s thieving Charlie Croker represents an idealised image of British suave and sophistication, circa 1969. His first engagement, after his release from serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure, is to kiss a beautiful woman. He then visits his tailor, liberates a gorgeous open-top Aston Martin DB4, and then shags a whole Bond films-worth of ladies, apparently all at once. All of this occurs inside of fifteen minutes. If ever you wondered why certain men wax lyrical about the supposed ‘good old days’, wonder no longer.
The film doesn’t dwell on the details of character development. We know Charlie is a diamond geezer from his quick wits, sartorial resplendency and the half-dressed women running in and out of his abode (not to mention his apparent widow fetish). The incomparable Noël Coward, here playing the poised and patriotic prison-based gangster Mr. Bridger, is introduced to the strains of Rule Britannia, and in utterly priceless fashion, admonishes an interloping Croker for accosting him in the sacred sanctuary of the Englishman: the toilet. A more questionable casting choice is Benny Hill. His character is supposed to a ‘technician’ or ‘doctor’ - the film never bothers to make a distinction - with deviant tendencies. This is neither worthwhile or funny, nor is it very useful to the narrative. It is thus fitting that he is ultimately abandoned to his own seedy devices. Coward and Caine are both exemplary, but the rest of the cast are little more than talking heads. Save for the training sequences, which are intermittently funny, and a rather convenient expository recording of the plan, you could easily skip all the banter - including THAT line - and get to the business of blagging the gold.
The Italian locations provide some glorious backdrops and vistas, and the film does a fine job of seeding tension via the confrontation with the Mafia, and the subsequent destruction of Crocker’s Aston and the two E-Type Jags. Honestly, the film has an almost voyeuristic obsession with showcasing and then destroying beautiful cars, and watching the thrashing of the Jaguars (in particular) was a physically painful experience. The Mafia confrontation marks another tonal shift, and this is where the film is at its best. Watching the boys awaiting their quarry - under threat of death - is actually very tense, and from the moment their plan is executed and they attack the armoured convoy - in a superbly structured, gritty and under-appreciated sequence - there is an undeniable kinetic energy. The centrepiece of this is of course the legendary three Mini car chase with the incompetent Carabinieri. It is breathtaking, and the choreography and technical prowess on display remains truly marvellous. The dome roof sequence, filmed atop the Fiat Turin Mostre, remains one of the most remarkable accomplishments ever committed to film.
The Italian Job is suffused throughout with the swinging rhythms of the Sixties, and is not just ‘of its time’ but is arguably the ultimate cinematic summation of the era that birthed it. Judged by modern standards the writing and overall dynamic is rather chauvinistic and occasionally leering, and the levels of jingoism and general stereotyping on display are eye-watering to the point of deliberate absurdity. The women in the film are portrayed as feckless objects, possessing no more than a wisp of usefulness. As previously mentioned it’s easy (and fatuous) to criticise the film for this in 2018. For the record, the film does point its sardonic gaze at Britain, in the process proffering some jet black commentary. Case in point: the central plan revolves around weaponising a traffic jam, which is nothing more than a vehicular queue. So, the plan is basically to ‘queue’ them into submission. Short of drowning your enemies in tea, it doesn’t get more stereotypically British than that.
The film’s enigmatic climax was partially the product of sequel expectation, but Collinson, who hated all the initally proposed conclusions, also appreciated the irony of a literal ‘cliffhanger’, and his decision imbues the unresolved ending with a pseudo-nihilistic quality. This was a very bold choice for 1969. The Italian Job is fundamentally a celebration of glorious, roaring style over almost anything substantive. If one is prepared to accept that, and not indulge in the thoroughly modern tendency towards imposing contemporary values, then you will be rewarded with a riveting British caper, boasting a fabulous score by Quincy Jones and crackling with wry nostalgia and - yes - iconic energy.
A Lamborghini Miura winds its way along the twisting, scenic roads of the Italian alps to the soundtrack of the sumptuous voice of Matt Monro. So far, so quintessentially Sixties. It lulls the driver, and the viewer, into a false sense of security, with fatal consequences. The driver is Roger Beckermann, mastermind of a plan to hijack $4 million in gold bullion by causing traffic jam chaos in the centre of Turin.
Following this sinister opening at the hands of the Mafia, we are introduced to the roguish Charlie Croker (Michael Caine, in a role not too dissimilar from his star-making turn in Alfie (1966)), just released from a long stretch in prison. But Charlie has no intention of going straight just yet. Croker takes on the heist and, with the support of a getaway team with names like Rozzer, Coco, Yellow and Camp Freddie, what could possibly go wrong? Someone who is quite content serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure is Mr Bridger – Noël Coward’s final screen performance. An urbane royalist who appears to have the entire prison staff under his thumb, he is convinced to financially back the raid, and keep a close eye on the young upstart Croker in the process.
Iconic is often an overused word, but The Italian Job can stake a claim to that description more than most. From the infinitely quotable lines (mainly involving doors and having a great ideas), and the feel of the tail end of the swinging Sixties in the air, the film oozes confidence at every turn. This is before even mentioning the red, white and blue Mini Coopers that, over 40 years later, hold their own in people’s affections among the likes of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 or Steve McQueen’s ‘Bullitt’ Mustang.
Tonally, the film is mischievous, witty and playful, with only one real misstep – Professor Peach, a computer expert, played by Benny Hill. The character is written and performed as a lecherous caricature, which feels more like a vehicle for Hill to do his shtick than anything else. More is made of his back story than any other character in the film, and one wonders why, particularly when once he is arrested, he disappears from the story.
Michael Caine is an actor who takes playing tongue in cheek utterly seriously, and turns in a winningly charming and comic performance. Is this the film that cemented his screen legend? Some would say it was Alfie, others would make a case for Get Carter (1971). For me, it is The Italian Job. One can’t help but want him and his team to succeed.
The driving sequences are stunningly executed and choreographed like an automotive ballet. Indeed, a scene deleted from the final print involved the small cars, pursued by the police, spinning around an exhibition centre to the strains of Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’. Although a wonderful and expertly performed scene, it is understandable why it was excised – it stretches credibility a little too far. Regardless, the final act is a masterclass in stunt driving, with the hide and seek on the roof of the Fiat car factory in Turin, pursuits through weirs and sewers, and nimble dashes down stairways and through shopping arcades. Often imitated, never bettered. With a denouement that leaves our protagonists (and us) hanging, the last half an hour is a breathless spectacle.
The Italian Job is pacy, witty, and ridiculously entertaining. The direction by Peter Collinson is slick and the script is tight, courtesy of Z Cars (1962-1978) creator Troy Kennedy Martin. It comes closest to evoking the anarchic delight of the peak Ealing comedy days of the likes of The Ladykillers (1955) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), flying the British flag for idiosyncratic comedy capers. It remains a film that exudes infectious joy.