The Italian Job (1969) – Directed by Peter Collinson – Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley, and Rosanno Brazzi.
As a car movie, THE ITALIAN JOB is pretty awesome. As a crime movie, THE ITALIAN JOB is pretty good. As an overall movie … it honestly doesn’t come together for me. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but there are so many small missteps and missed opportunities that it’s hard for me to think of the movie as much more than a decent bit of carporn and a mildly amusing crime caper.
It’s easy to see the influence of Peter Collinson’s film on a director like Guy Ritchie with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, likable bad guys, and heavy bad guys, and Ritchie has learned well from what Collinson doesn’t do in ITALIAN JOB. The biggest problem with Collinson’s film is that there’s no real antagonist. Well, there is – the Mafia – but he doesn’t properly employ them in the film’s final act.
The basic plot of ITALIAN JOB sees Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) leading a crew of Brits into Turin, Italy to steal a shipment of gold from the auto manufacturer, Fiat. The Mafia gets wind of the plot when it was originally conceived by Croker’s friend Beckermann and then again when Croker decides to go ahead with it and they’re there to stop both Breckermann and Croker the first time around. the Mafia takes Breckermann out in the movie’s opening. The Brit is driving a Lamborghini Miura through the Italian Alps as Matt Munro sings “On Days Like These” and the opening titles run. Breckermann takes the Miura into a tunnel but doesn’t make it out as he drives into a trap and the car gets blown up. The Mafia use a bulldozer to pull the wrecked Miura out of the tunnel and then dumps it over the side of the cliff.
Later, when Croker drives through the Alps with his crew, the Mafia is again there to stop them. Again using a bulldozer, it destroys two Jags and an Aston Martin DB4, flipping them off the cliff, too. Collinson uses the Mafia like a gang of Batman, seemingly appearing out of nowhere to stand menacingly above the road and then seemingly disappearing into nothingness.
It’s such a terrific use of the Mafia as these faceless automatons that it’s stunning that this scene – about halfway through the movie – is the end of the Mafia’s significant involvement in the movie.
What makes THE ITALIAN JOB a movie worth watching (beyond Caine’s performance) is the movie’s final act. After the crew steals the gold they load it into the back of three Mini Coopers and then the Minis escape through the city, driving in the back alleys of Turin, through a big shopping mall, up a large curved roof, a rooftop testing crack at a Fiat factory, down some church steps, through a big sewage pipe, and ultimately into the back of a hollowed out bus.
It’s fun and it’s silly and it’s awesome. What’s really nice about the sequence is that unlike the overwhelming majority of car chases, the Mini’s escape isn’t about power, but maneuverability. You couldn’t make this escape in a bigger vehicle.
What hurts the car chase, though, is that there’s no antagonist. There’s just one bland, faceless cop after another chasing after them and crashing. You never feel like there’s any way the Coopers won’t escape because you know some extra in a cop’s uniform and bland brown car isn’t going to stop them. It ends up rendering the chase as an amusing performance at a car show much more than a chase.
The Mafia, that wonderfully mysterious and powerful entity that plagued Breckermann and Croker earlier, is pretty much left out of the final act and I was infinitely more interested in seeing Croker pull one over on the Mafia than I was in seeing them execute some downtown robbery.
Michael Caine kept me constantly amused but that’s it – just amused. Like the Ritchie movies, these bungling caper flicks tend to never elevate beyond being a mildly-enjoyable meal to me. It’s like when you go to one of your favorite restaurants and get your second choice because you’ve had your favorite one-too-many times in a row. So you get the second choice and eat it and it ends up being just sorta good and about halfway through the meal you start wishing you had gone with the favorite.
He’s great to watch but he’s the only character in the film with any kind of multifaceted personality. None of the thieves in his crew is really ever anything more than their job. The guy who’s bankrolling the job – Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward) – is interesting only because he’s running his criminal empire from inside a prison. Bridger’s Number One, Camp Freddie (played by Tony Beckley) is the most interesting non-Caine character in the film, but as with the Mafia the film does so little capitalizing on the interesting early scenes that it leaves you wondering why the filmmakers thought we’d rather someone else other than the characters we’d become invested in watching.
The film’s ending leaves you on an actual cliffhanger. As the busload of criminals and gold is driven through the Alps, the Minis being dumped over the cliff at various points), the bus goes out of control and ends up teetering off the edge. The men stand nervously on one end as the gold keeps slipping dangerously close to the back door, threatening to take the entire bus load of them crashing to their deaths. Crocker is easing down towards the gold, but every time he gets close, the gold slides a bit more. When it looks like they are stuck without a solution, Crocker says, “I’ve got a great idea!” but before we can see it executed the camera pulls away, leaving us wondering if they managed to get either the gold or themselves to safety.
It’s one of the all-time great endings.
I’m all for a film being fun rather than realistic but when it’s time to pull off a major heist I want to see criminals being professionals, not guys complaining about who has to sit in the back seat because they get car sick. It’s good fun when they’re training and proving themselves incompetent (especially the demolitions guy who blows up the entire test truck instead of just blowing off the rear doors), but ultimately I don’t buy the ability of any of these criminals to pull of this heist – even Crocker is basically just executing the plan that Breckermann developed. If you’re going to have unprofessional criminals, that’s totally cool, but they should pull off unprofessional gigs, not highly detailed, finely tuned operations.
THE ITALIAN JOB ends up being a fun film with a few really memorable moments and a classic car chase, but it fails at being anything more than a pleasant distraction.