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By the time The Italian Job was released in 1969, the modern crime film, and the contemporary big-caper thriller in particular, had withstood a withering barrage of satire and hipness. In the noir days of the '40s and '50s, bank robbers and career felons were either fearsome sociopaths or desperate and pathetic losers caught between hard places, but come the '60s we were allowed to view zesty, enterprising criminals with an unprecedented degree of ethical latitude. Suddenly, heist scenarios weren't all about the grim clockwork of destiny and doom in an amoral postwar landscape, but about fun - living large, risking all of the chips, defying The Man and dissing the establishment.
That didn't mean the heists in question stood any chance of succeeding - it's programmed into the genre's DNA that the most comic or high-spirit heist must still eventually spiral out of control and end badly. (It's always made sense - as Mickey Rourke tells James M. Cain-like schemer William Hurt in 1981's Body Heat, "any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you're gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you're a genius...") This imperative was tellingly discarded only after the Reagan administration, when apparently Hollywood no longer saw the need to punish the greedy and felonious or to suggest that simply conniving to rob huge amounts of money rather than work a normal job might be a bad idea. Entropic collapse, and its attendant comeuppance for the crooks who thought they were smarter than everybody else, is essential. Today, with Hollywood's market-researched devotion to happy endings, we get snatch-and-grab thrillers with the thematic weight of The Price Is Right. The contrast between the original Italian Job and its lackluster, already-forgotten 2003 remake may come down to this moral chasm - the difference between having the rather absurd story carry some measure of irony or resonance or meaning, and having it carry none at all.
Not that The Italian Job is a particularly meaningful affair, even by crazy-caper-movie standards - it's a doggedly irreverent goof, a skylarking '60s slice of hipster farce and groovy sang-froid. This was a time when ritzy-grungy Mediterranean locales were still glamorous, classy mobsters still wore pastel suits (if they ever did in reality), and the notion that our randy, suave hero (Michael Caine) could entertain three blonde hookers at a time was not out of the question. Just out of prison, Caine's Charlie Croker is an irrepressible Lothario instantly onto a new job - which means, we know, gathering a team of cohorts (including Benny Hill as a letch obsessed with fat women), planning on grid-locking Turin so as to facilitate the getaway with millions in gold, and doing it all with the aid of super-boss Noel Coward (running his empire from inside prison), and under the noses of a cartoonishly evil Cosa Nostra.
Over the years, The Italian Job has become famous and cult-beloved for one line uttered amidst the plot's procedural assembling-the-pieces montage section - the team's explosives expert completely ignites and decimates a van, to which Caine simply barks, with characteristic half-lidded fury, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" The line has attained such eminence in Great Britain that it was, in a 2003 poll, voted by fans to be the greatest one-liner in film history. Love for The Italian Job has only gotten more intense since - during the elaborate and movie-drenched ceremonies at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London directed by Danny Boyle, not only was this moment of Caine's screened for a worldwide audience, but a replica of the film's ending tableau - a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff - was constructed atop the De La War Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
If you weren't a Brit lad growing into manhood sometime between 1969 and the '80s, when home video established many half-remembered films as vital cultural expressions in England and elsewhere, then you might not completely fathom the fiery allure The Italian Job has come to hold for its countrymen. That's hardly unusual (imagine a French or Swedish viewer trying to wrap their heads around our persistent American ardor for something like The Breakfast Club, 1985), and it's not as though director Peter Collinson's film doesn't reek of charm and insouciance, particularly once the narrative is essentially handed over to a trio of red, white and blue Mini Coopers, which serve as compact getaway vehicles running over the Italian cityscape like mice. Sometimes, nationalist iconography will out, and more than one generation of Brit has thrilled to the antics of the iconic little Brit-car scamping around and evading pursuit, complete with their own boppy Quincy Jones theme song.
It's not all for-Brits-only, culture-specific metaphors - the idea of causing a massive traffic jam in Italy is turned into a hilarious flourish, as Collinson's camera surveys the gridlocked Turin citizens gambling, flirting and lounging in their cars. (The Mafia is seen doing little but performing roadside whackings accompanied by payloaders.) And of course Caine is a blast in his idiosyncratic Cockney way, seeming to be both super-cool and on the edge of explosion at the same time, underselling his dialogue in that movie star way that makes us lean in closer. In fact, The Italian Job seems a trifle less interested in the machinations of its bullion-thieving plot than in its sense of buoyant esprit; it's not a heist movie so much as a farce that never comes completely out of the closet. This was a sign of the times - the first Casino Royale (1967) had already come out, turning the merely-five-year-old James Bond franchise into a lampoon of dopey schtick and psychedelic partying - but all the same, however silly, Collinson's film ends up on that cliff, with the thieves balanced on the edge of disaster, and Caine's unruffled alpha male saying, "I got a great idea..." as the helicopter shot pulls away and leaves the caper's fate unresolved. It's a cosmic joke, true enough, and one that filmmakers lost the nerve to tell just a few decades later.
Producer: Michael Deeley; Stanley Baker (uncredited)
Director: Peter Collinson
Screenplay: Troy Kennedy Martin
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Michael Knight
Music: Quincy Jones
Film Editing: John Trumper
Cast: Michael Caine (Charlie Croker), Nol Coward (Mr. Bridger), Benny Hill (Professor Simon Peach), Raf Vallone (Altabani), Tony Beckley (Freddie), Rossano Brazzi (Beckerman), Maggie Blye (Lorna), Irene Handl (Miss Peach), John le Mesurier (Governor), Fred Emney (Birkinshaw)
by Michael Atkinson