Directed by Mario Monicelli "Big Deal on Madonna Street" is a riff on many of the old caper movies most notably "Asphalt Jungle" and "Rififi". It's an amusingly charming film with great colorful characters but the one thing that sets it apart from other comedies is how stunningly well shot it is.
"Big Deal on Madonna Street" was shot by Gianni de Venanzo – who worked often with both Antonioni and Fellini -- and it occasionally has the look of many of the best film noirs of the 1940's and 50's. Made in 1958, the film still has one foot rooted in Italian neorealism, which often showcased poor working class people and their financial hardships after World War Two. This particular film takes a comedic, slapstick look at petty thieves who try to carry out the perfect heist but have trouble getting into the building they want to rob - let alone getting into the safe.
The characters are all inept ex-cons and include -- among others -- Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) a big boxer with a glass jaw, Tiberio (Marcello Mastioianni) who's taking care of his baby since his wife has been imprisoned, Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia) the hot headed Sicilian who keeps his beautiful sister locked at home and Capanelle (Carlo Pisacane) a toothless old man who seems to be more on the hunt for food than for money.
Even if you don't think much of the comedy you can at least marvel at the quality of the transfer. The digital transfer was done from a 35mm composite fine-grain master and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:33 to 1. The blacks are dark and rich, the contrasts are consistently strong throughout. And, since it is full screen, there is very little edge enhancement. There are numerous deep focus shots (recalling a "Citizen Kane" influence) and film noir lighting – most notably in chapters 5, 14 and 21. Occasionally, compression artifact can be detected, especially in scenes where stairs are shown but it's not too bad. There are some white specks and dirt throughout the print but only the beginning of chapter 19 is it really noticeable. Subtitles are white but easy to read.
The film has a good urban jazz score that sounds pretty good considering it is presented monaural. All of it too is in dubbed Italian (which was common for Italian films in that period) so it will only bother those who speak Italian.
The only significant extra is a vintage trailer that played pretty well in its day since it helped make the film a great success. The print on the trailer looks poor with little definition or contrast. If anything, the trailer can be used to compare the print before and after the restoration. There is also a short essay by Bruce Eder on the inside of the jacket cover. The film is 106 minutes and there are 25 chapters and as with all Criterion releases it is enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions.
Big Deal on Madonna Street should be seen by anyone who can appreciate the unique combination of noir lighting with Italian comedy. I saw the film a year ago on a bad video copy and didn't think much of it but seeing the Criterion Collections print I found it a much better film and one I look forward to seeing again.