Savant had fond memories of The Italian Job when it was a new and only lightly-distributed Paramount import from England, with an audience of soldiers that delighted in its whimsy and slapstick attitude toward heist movies. Last summer's bloated remake was of course an opportunity to praise the original. Revived in its widescreen dimensions (finally) on this excellent-quality DVD, the 1969 Michael Caine vehicle is no classic, but a technically adroit, fun romp that can at least claim to have completely avoided pretension.
The Union Jacks all over the original UK posters should be a giveaway; this irreverent spoof of caper films elevates style over content, and attitude over style. Carnaby street and Mod London are a few years old, but the arrogant Brits of The Italian Job show those I-Ties who's champs in the comedy game. As part of the heist, the young thieves disguise themselves as British football fans. That's probably the intended rowdy audience for this show.
The movie has style but never develops a consistent tone. It's a comic heist crossed with the cynicism of a Spaghetti Western, as exemplified by the sadistic joke that serves as a title sequence. Many of the heist details are relentlessly realistic, but the set-up is a farce that hides its humor so deeply, it's invisible. There's a huge running gag with the idea that the real man behind English might is an imprisoned mob boss, and we get long scenes showing him being insufferably snooty to everyone. He dresses down the warden, slights our hero Croker, and waves at his adoring prison-mates with one of those limp royal hand gestures. The fact that he can get out of prison at will for important mob meetings doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Naturally, it's all supposed to work on a comic-book level; Michael Caine is introduced by staring right into the camera with a 'Yup, it's me!' aside straight out of Danger: Diabolik. He's basically Alfie crossed with Robin Hood, an irrepressable cad and master thief. He organizes his gigantic complicated caper with what seems a hundred participants.
The film is more impressive than funny. Caine uses his flippant Cockney manner, but switches to an ever-so-proper tone to pick up his Aston Martin. Benny Hill is amusing whenever his eyes light up at the sight of a woman with a fat rear end, but his gags don't build and he's in the movie as an obvious guest ringer. He makes his exit without really participating (he changes a tape spool, big deal). Preparation gags just have cars overturning, and that old side-splitter, using too much dynamite (Butch).
The centerpiece is a lighthearted chase that certainly grabs the attention. Although it's never as outrageous as it wants to be, the fact that it's all real (thanks to the stunt team of the legendary Rémy Julienne) keeps our eyes riveted to the screen. The little Mini Coopers are like manic Dinky Toys, candy-colored zooming clown cars that seem able to go anywhere. They're very entertaining to watch zoom through unlikely pedestrian passageways, and almost overturn while slaloming through a sewer pipe.
But not only is Caine just a bystander for most of the heist, none of his crew have much of a personality. Hidden in the carloads of Caine's thieves is lofty actor Robert Powell (The Asphyx), with nothing to do but run around like the rest of the faceless Brits. Lots of English bickering is added via the dubbing, but the action is all we're given for fun.
It's cute to see a Mini Cooper passenger pluck some Italian's lunch off his sidewalk dinner table, but nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. The Italian officials, cops and Mafiosi pluck their hair out at seeing their gold stolen and cars wrecked. The film is way ahead of its time in the destruction derby stakes; we see what look like beautiful new Jaguars, Alpha Romeos and Ferrari's crushed, smashed and thrown off Alpine cliffs as if they were old Pintos from a wrecking yard. Perhaps the big appeal of the show is for auto freaks and sports car fans.
Quincy Jones' music, which includes a choral drinking song called The Self-Preservation Society does a lot to keep the movie on the rails. It combines with an ecstatic prison celebration to make us feel that we're in the middle of a big frat party. Having genial Michael Caine for a hero lets us just relax and soak in the amusing chaos. Nothing has to resolve - the Mafia and the authorities just drop out of the picture. To some this makes for a perfect entertainment, and anybody who gripes just isn't with the spirit. Savant is still about 60% with the program.
The extravagance and gratuitous craziness of the vehicular set pieces was very impressive in 1969 - the sight of a gigantic touring bus dangling on the brink of a cliff was terrific then, and the pointless gag of having the three Minis drive onto the sweeping roof of a giant triangular stadium had a logic completely outside the narrative - a boyish celebration of stunt virtuosity for its own sake. Now, driving on sidewalks and across aqueducts is old hat; chase scenes have gotten far more elaborate, outrageous and impossible, especially with the help of faked animated effects enhancements. Modern CGI effects have diluted thrills like this to the point that there's no longer a suspension of disbelief, for movies old or new.
As a mindless thriller with a beautifully photographed surface (the cream of English talent seems to have toiled on this thing), The Italian Job works as an example of slick production for its own sake. It's still more pleasant than the pandering remake, but I now understand why Paramount had little confidence in it when it was new. 2
Paramount's DVD of the original 1969 The Italian Job is a beautiful transfer that well-represents the film's Technicolor gloss. There's a new 5.1 mix that opens up the soundscape nicely.
This title was announced a couple of years ago, and then pulled, presumably to synch up with the release of the remake. As such, it's been given the royal treatment. The commentary from the producer and author Matthew Field is pleasant enough, but the three lengthy docus tried my patience beyond understanding. Most of the surviving production personnel were rounded up, and they go on forever on the subject of the shooting, often about relatively arcane production details.
There's also a great wealth of biographical material on director Peter Collinson, that lets us know everything about his life but doesn't make a case for his talent as a director. The only other show I've seen by him is Straight on Til Morning, and it's no recommendation. As The Italian Job isn't all that distinguished in the directing category (no matter what the testimony says here), all the praise wears rather thin.
There's one priceless gag where the trio of cars jump a giant distance between two buildings, and only in the docu do we find out that it was a real stunt with those crazy French stuntmen really risking their lives. In the film, it's covered so poorly, we assume the height and distance involved were cheated. Say what you will about crass stuntwork in James Bond movies, but when they show a car doing a corkscrew jump across a river, the director has sense to cover it in a pictures-don't-lie mastershot. Here, the quick cutting between bad angles makes the jump seem no big deal. Even the cameraman laments the bad coverage. 3
More interesting is a deleted scene where the three Minis and three Torino cop cars do a waltz on a deserted dance floor, with an orchestra playing. The cars move in synchronized harmony, but it sounds much better as an idea than it looks in execution. The auto equivalent of Busby Berkeley would be required to make it work, and I think it would have gotten impatient groans from the audience had it been left in.
Think about the also fairly gratuitous car chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that turns a mini-car rally into a demolition derby. It worked there because the script made what was essentially frivolous into a comedy scene, where Diana Rigg could make cute jokes, and the baddies in their Mercedes could fume and suffer. For almost all of the car chase in The Italian Job, there's no identifying who's even in the cars ... it's just about the cars themselves, not even Michael Caine.
That said, this The Italian Job chase is much more interesting than the 2003 The Italian Job chase, which is dumb without being absurd, and impossible without being clever. And those new Minis look so much cooler!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Italian Job rates:
1. The bus jeopardy scene,
highly reminiscent of the conclusion of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear has the funniest moment in
the show, and the only really classic joke. With the bus precariously balanced, Caine announces
he's going to move toward the cliff end to pull back the gold that's tipping them over. His
assembled group of party-hearties nod, and then all start to move with him ... it's an
absurd moment worthy of Buster Keaton.
2. It did get more respect than other Paramount Brit imports: The cute
The Assassination Bureau was also given an invisible American release.
3. I drove a 1962 Corvair for a year or so as a teenager. I spun out
several times because the car was rear-heavy. When it entered any kind of skid, it tended to
whip around like a throwing dagger. You know, as in "Help Mr. Na-de-e-er!" Seeing the Mini
Coopers jump that 25 foot gap between the buildings always struck me as wrong - with all the gold
in their trunks, they should be flipping upside down and backwards!