Updated: Oct 29, 2018
as reviewed by Tom
Format Reviewed: DVD/Paramount (2002).
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), 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. 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 creator Troy Kennedy Martin. It comes closest to evoking the anarchic delight of the peak Ealing comedy days of the likes of The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob, flying the British flag for idiosyncratic comedy capers. It remains a film that exudes infectious joy.