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While some point to The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 as the film that really marked the emergence of the heist film, the genre had actually been in existence since the silent era with The Great Train Robbery (1903) a prime example on up through the forties with such influential efforts as High Sierra (1941). It is true, however, that the heist film became an international phenomena in the fifties thanks to the worldwide success of Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) which set the standard for subsequent films such as Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1956). It was inevitable that some filmmaker would eventually poke fun at the then-current craze but nobody expected it to come from Italy in what is now regarded as possibly the finest heist parody of all time - Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). Directed by Mario Monicelli, the film was known in Italy as I Soliti Ignoti and was also released under the alternate title of Persons Unknown.
An inspired synthesis of neo-realism and Italian farce, Big Deal on Madonna Street was created in the spirit of the commedia all'italiana, a form Monicelli had perfected in his films over the years through working with the great screen comic Toto in Toto cerca casa (1949), Cops and Robbers (1951, aka Guardie e ladri) and others. In an interview with writer Ilaria Lacommare, Monicelli stated that commedia all'italiana "comes from way back, from the commedia dell'arte, from the characters created by sixteenth century Italian writer and actor Ruzante and Machiavelli, to quote but two. One has to underline the fact that it's called 'comedy' and not 'tragedy.' It encompassed everything from love to death, passing through hunger, poverty, sickness and violence. It generates a desperation that nevertheless fills one with hope through laughter."
The plot of Big Deal on Madonna Street focuses on a motley crew of petty criminals who are so inept at their so-called profession that they can barely eke out a living on the streets. Deciding to pool their resources and talents, the group plots the robbery of a state-run pawn shop that is adjacent to the apartment of two elderly women. Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a failed boxer, begins courting Nicoletta (Carla Gravina), the niece of the two women, in an attempt to learn the layout of their apartment and their routine. As the burglars prepare for the designated day when the apartment will be empty and they can break through the wall into the neighboring pawn-shop, we get to know each character and their personal problems - Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), whose wife is in jail for selling black-market goods, has his arm broken by a street vendor he stole a movie camera from; Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), a proud Sicilian, becomes enraged and threatening when he learns that his beautiful sister Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale) is being romanced by fellow gang member Mario (Renato Salvatori); Peppe gets into a fight at a public dance hall with Nicoletta's two suitors and is knocked unconscious; all of which is played for laughs. The group's lack of experience and poor judgment is confirmed when they seek advice from safecracker expert Dante Cruciani (Toto) who can't participate because he is under close scrutiny by the police but rents them the necessary tools for the job which includes a cheese grater and other kitchen implements.
According to Matilde Hochkofler in Marcello Mastroianni: The Fun of Cinema, Big Deal on Madonna Street "had a rather complicated genesis. In some ways it emerged from the ruins of White Nights . The co-producers of Visconti's film, reunited under the title CIAS, decided to reuse the extremely expensive reproduction of Livorno which they had built at Cinecitta. They were thinking of a low-budget film to be produced using the same back-drop. In the end they dismantled the set but the film itself, based on the story of some small-time crooks who may have operated in such a downtrodden, proletarian setting, began to take shape." It was always the intention of the screenwriters - Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli and Monicelli - to parody Rififi and they drew their inspiration from minor crimes committed by "the usual nobodies" in local newspapers.
Marcello Mastroianni was already familiar to art house audiences from such earlier films as the aforementioned White Nights and Too Bad She's Bad (1954) which co-starred Sophia Loren, but the actor was still a few years away from the movie that made him an international star - Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Big Deal on Madonna Street proved without a doubt that Mastroianni was a gifted farceur and the same was true of his co-star Vittorio Gassman, who prior to this movie was usually cast in villainous roles in his native Italy. Gassman was previously married to actress Shelley Winters from 1952-1954 and had tried unsuccessfully to establish a Hollywood career during their marriage but was unhappy with his experiences at MGM (Sombrero , Rhapsody ). Luckily, he returned to Italy where he became one of his country's most popular film and stage actors.
Big Deal on Madonna Street was also the first major role for Claudia Cardinale, who had previously appeared in a small part in Goha (1958). Monicelli's film also features Toto, considered a national treasure in Italy, in a delightful cameo, and for many American moviegoers, it was their first exposure to the iconic actor. It is also interesting to see Renato Salvatori in an early comedic role. He would later become typecast as brutal and often insensitive working class characters in such films as Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Costa-Gavras's Z (1969) and Vittorio De Sica's A Brief Vacation (1973). The real scene-stealer in Big Deal on Madonna Street, however, is Carlo Pisacane as the elderly and often befuddled Capannelle. A veteran of more than seventy Italian films, he has an unforgettable face and voice, one that is ideal for both comedy and tragedy.
A huge hit in Italy when it was released, Big Deal on Madonna Street not only won two Italian Nastri d'Argento awards - for Best Leading Actor (Gassman) and Best Screenplay - it also garnered the prestigious Conchiglia d'Argento award for Best Director at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. The film also was the official Italy Oscar® nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 but lost to Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle.
Critical response to Monicelli's film in the U.S. was highly favorable with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times voicing an assessment that was the general consensus, "It may be a spoof on "Rififi," but its comedy is based on something much more universal and elementary. That is the humor of sheer clumsiness...an essentially funny picture, artfully and joyously played."
Evidence of the film's continued influence can be seen in such contemporary caper comedies as Alan Taylor's independent film Palookaville (1995) and Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000) which is an obvious homage to Monicelli's film as well as the 1942 Edward G. Robinson comedy, Larceny, Inc..
Producer: Franco Cristaldi
Director: Mario Monicelli
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Mario Monicelli, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli (both screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Music: Piero Umiliani
Film Editing: Adriana Novelli
Cast: Vittorio Gassman (Peppe il pantera), Marcello Mastroianni (Tiberio), Renato Salvatori (Mario Angeletti), Memmo Carotenuto (Cosimo), Rossana Rory (Norma), Carla Gravina (Nicoletta), Claudia Cardinale (Carmelina), Carlo Pisacane (Capannelle), Toto (Dante Cruciani), Tiberio Murgia (Michele Ferribotte), Gina Rovere (Teresa, Tiberio's wife), Gina Amendola (Nerina, Mario's mother).
by Jeff Stafford
SOURCES: Marcello Mastroianni: The Fun of Cinema by Matilde Hochkofler (Gremese)
Cinema Italian Style by Silvia Bizio (Gremese)
www.cafebabel.com, "Mario Monicelli Interview" by Ilaria Lacommare