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The Italian Job
cast: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone, Irene Handl

director: Peter Collinson

96 minutes (PG) 1969
Paramount VHS retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
"Think of it: a city in chaos, and four million dollars through a traffic jam."
Troy Kennedy Martin, its scriptwriter, has described the central significance of the Mini Cooper in Peter Collinson's cult heist movie. Perkily speeding through the streets of Turin, it represents the then New Britain: "laddish, self-confident and not taking itself too seriously." The image of the weaving, dodging, red, white and blue cars is the abiding one. Outside of their use in the prolonged escape scenes, and several splendid comic moments elsewhere the film remains entertaining, even if surprisingly slight.
   Often seen as a quintessential 1960s' movie, The Italian Job is more precisely a definition (or one definition) of Britain as an optimistic nation at the height of a chic decade. This was a country still riding the wave of a World Cup victory, the sensation of the Beatles, the style of Mary Quant, and the pliancy of mini-skirted dolly birds. In this atmosphere, pulling a job, or a bird, is practically a national duty.
   Croker and Bridger consider robbery as a means to "help with the country's balance of payments." The ultra-patriotic Mr Bridger (a splendidly aristocratic Noel Coward, his cell walls pasted with pictures of royalty) sees the job as much a matter of national pride, a means to demonstrate the efficiency of the British system of work, than a route to amassing loot. Bridger is more interested in studying balance of payment statistics than examining escape routes for his operatives who, appropriately enough, travel to 'work' on the Free Enterprise 1.
   The reference to football is significant, and parallels are deliberate. Most obviously, the robbery is planned for the time of an England v Italy match maximising confusion and even, (as Bridger suggests at one point), help from their sporting compatriots. Croker's men at one point assume the identity of a van full of fans, while the impromptu beer celebration in the back of the coach, after ditching the minis, is a team's victory drink. It is clear that the Italians, whether the police or the Mafia, are as much their opponents as any national team playing in the stadium. Back in prison, upon news of the triumph by his 'team', Bridger descends the stairs, like a penal Alf Ramsey, acknowledging the chants of 'England!' by celebrating fans.
   Caine's cockney player is very much the main character of the film (a role apparently, and amazingly, originally offered to Robert Redford). The actor, who had earlier played the soliloquising womaniser Alfie in the 1966 film of the same name, reprises some elements of that character's optimism and presumptions. In the present film he is less of cynical loner, studiously subservient to his criminal employer, though still on the look out for a good thing, both professionally and sexually. Like his more famous compatriot, James Bond, he drives an Aston Martin, although quickly reduced to a bicycle and then a mini. The Mafia's cliff-side warning dents some of his self-assurance, presumably also shaken by the roughing up from Bridger's men (although, interestingly, the beating is never referred to again, and leaves no physical marks.) Away from his boss he remains very much his own man, although his loyalty is never in doubt: "From now on we work as a team. Which means you all listen to me." Crocker is always in control, never sentimental, being content to pack his girlfriend off with the minimum of ceremony at the airport. Emotion slowly filtered through Caine's screen persona. His watching of Beckermann's footage early on, to explain the big idea, anticipates Carter's less dispassionate viewing of celluloid in Hodges' gangster film two years later.
   Before the long, final chase ensues; the Mafia ceremoniously waste the gang's Aston and two Jags. While making a simple point about the threat and power of the Italian underworld, the removal of 'competing' vehicles also reaffirms the status of the remaining minis. Ironically, if the film has a weakness, it lies in the prominence given to the car, the display that reduces tension during the last part of the film. The stunts are still eye-catching today (the notable rooftop jump being filmed on the roof of the Fiat factory), but very often one is aware of watching a demonstration of the vehicle's versatility rather than a dramatic bid for freedom. In one scene filmed, later deleted from the release print, the Minis and their Italian pursuers performed gracefully together on an ice rink choreographed to a waltz, slowing the action even further. That such a scene was considered, and filmed, gives an indication of how taken the makers had been with the car, with the means rather than the process of urgent escape.
   Another less satisfactory element of the plot is the disappearing Mafia. Although initially presented as a formidable, organised force (as in their synchronised appearance on the hill side for instance), the Italian hoods are increasingly sidelined as events unfolded, seeming criminal impotents, and their absence from the finale seems odd.
   With or without the Cosa Nostra's malign shadow, the existing conclusion of the film has excited much comment. With its famous shot of the coach balanced out over the precipice, the gold sliding towards its back end, and Croker's closing "I've got a great idea..." it is a literal cliffhanger. The original script tailed off with the escape, and another twist in the tail was clearly needed. After some debate a studio executive added the existing close, which could easily have appeared lame, but in the event proves a satisfying conclusion. By leaving the coach, and the viewer, hanging, the film has it both ways: the crooks get away with it and yet they don't; a group of white British lads triumph in their cool Minis, only to have their plans derailed by a careless black driver of their coach. If the film has been about the state of Britishness at the time then the uncertainty of its conclusion anticipates, perhaps, the doubts and strife of the ensuing decades.
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