Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley, Rossano Brazzi, Maggie Blye, Stanley Caine, and Harry Baird
The Italian Job is what you’d get if The Love Bug were made as a heist caper in that parallel universe where Mr. Spock had a goatee and stabbed people. Like The Love Bug, it’s all about car chases, wit, crumpled metal, and ‘60s pop, but everyone in The Italian Job is egotistical, greedy, susceptible to bribery, and delightfully mischievous. The flick is also hopelessly cynical: nations are run from prisons by mobsters, the hero can cheat on his girlfriend, the villain gets no comeuppance, crooks are patriots, computer geniuses are fat fetishists, and we find ourselves rooting for guys who drive getaway cars through a church. Bafflingly, the movie is rated G, probably because its one death occurs off-screen and the anti-hero’s orgy upon his release from prison is only implied. I wish I knew the name of this crazy parallel dimension where all this is acceptable. Oh, here it is: Great Britain in 1969.
I can’t stress enough how wonderfully, quintessentially ‘60s The Italian Job is. The cars, the clothes, the music, the camera work, the exuberance. And the women—ironed down hair, goofy underwear, and every one of them as beautiful as a Bond girl, with even less dialogue. Because the movie is British, the robbery is not simply a capitalist venture, as in the American remake. The heist comes across, however vaguely and misguidedly, as the last hurrah of some youthful social rebellion. The movie’s lighthearted tone turns briefly revolutionary as the lads club police officers and smash pickax handles through cop car windshields. The Italian Job also makes light of the antagonism Britain has always had with the rest of Europe (“bloody foreigners” one of the crooks mutters as he wanders Italy). Words and phrases like “anarchy” and “angry young man” would not be inappropriate. This was the ‘60s, after all, when even action movies were allowed to have social commentary.
Enter the legendary Michael Caine, in one sharp suit after another, whose name is deservedly painted like the Union Jack in the re-release trailer. He plays Charlie Croaker, fresh from prison with absolutely no compunction about turning to crime again. The prize is a half-ton of gold being transported through a giant traffic jam in Turin during an Italy-UK soccer match. To this end, Croaker enlists a small army of Cockney crooks, and soon it’s “bloomin’” this and “bloody” that as the lads soup up three mini Coopers. There’s bugger-all we can do about it as we’re off to Italy where our heroes can short out computerized video cameras, cross the Mafia, and walk nonchalantly past jaw-dropping Renaissance architecture. The movie doesn’t bother developing the gang too much; Tony Beckley is the prissy one, Stanley Caine (Michael’s brother) is the lummox, and Benny Hill is…well, Benny Hill, and let’s all thank God for that.
Funding the robbery is an inmate (Noel Coward) at Croaker’s former prison who wields so much authority that the warden answers to him, he gets his own bathroom, and no one takes any steps to keep him from running business as usual. His union with Croaker is like a truce between the establishment and the counterculture. Coward’s cell is a shrine to the queen, where he sends forth edicts that convicts who do not stand during the national anthem shall be beaten. He treats the entire criminal enterprise as just another stiff-upper-lip British endeavor. Caine plays Croaker as a giant, grinning child, eager for girls, gold, and swinging, delivering lines like “Get yourselves sorted out and shut up! From now on nobody talks but me!” and “We have to work as a team, so everyone do exactly as I say.” Don’t you just love the way Michael Caine talks, that hurried-yet-halting rhythm, that accent?
The movie’s climax is a tear-ass car chase through thin European streets, down steps, through subway stations, and across aqueducts, giving the Coopers more personality than many of the film’s characters. (The DVD’s commentary cheerfully refers to the chase as the largest car commercial in history.) Equal credit for the chase must go to director Peter Collinson, stunt supervisor Remy Julienne, and composer Quincy Jones; every second of Jones’ brilliant harpsichord and drinking song score could accompany a swarm of go-go dancers. “Get a Bloomin’ Move On (The Self-Preservation Society)”—rumored to feature vocals by Caine himself, with his perpetually Cockney headcold—is a campy gem.
The 2002 American remake is a mostly fun, if disposable distraction, and features an even better chase, in part because director F. Gary Gray resists the urge to use computer effects. But I prefer the original. The Italian Job succeeds as a naughty 99 minute confection, and finds whimsy in the sins of its protagonists and their absolute lack of repentance. It distills the caper movie to its purest elements of greed, mischief, humor, and action, and throws in some crazed patriotism for good measure. Don’t ask me why people like rooting for the bad guys sometimes. We just do.
Finished May 26th, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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