The Italian Job (1969)

D: Peter Collinson
S: Michael Caine, Noel Coward

Sprightly British-produced caper movie with low-rent ex-con Michael Caine lucking into a dream job, stealing $4m in gold bullion during rush-hour traffic in Turin. After obtaining the reluctant financial support of white collar, upper-crust criminal Noel Coward (who runs his empire from a jail cell and has warden John Le Mesurier apologising for the inadequacy of his facilities), he recruits the usual team of experts, henchmen, and comical buffoons. After some preliminary characterisation, the film is mostly concerned with the planning and execution of the robbery and the stirring up of cheerful xenophobia. The heist is carried out partly under the cover of an England versus Italy football match, and the film constantly alludes to the supremacy of British guile over the combined forces of the Italian police and the mafia. It's all in the spirit of mindless fun, of course, but it's ridiculously nationalistic.This doesn't prevent the film from being solid entertainment if you're in the right frame of mind.

Director Peter Collinson takes a snappy approach which is conducive to the sense of reckless abandon which drives the film. With its wafer-thin characterisation and narrative non-sequitors, this is not a film which tells a satisfying story or introduces us to interesting individuals who grow and change as the story develops. It's a live-action Hanna-Barbera cartoon with cockney accents. Douglas Slocombe has fun with picturesque Italian locations, though the limited colour scheme doesn't always make it pretty to watch (panned and scanned video or TV versions also lose the widescreen compositions). Editor John Trumper keeps things moving swiftly to an equally bouncy Quincy Jones score (which finishes with the anthem-like song "Self Preservation Society").

There is virtually no character development, and though the details of the plan are interesting, the film is really more a series of comic and semi-comic action set pieces, climaxing with a bizarre car chase involving three minis in a variety of unlikely locations including a sewer and the top of a stadium. That it ultimately fails to resolve the plot is incidental. The movie finishes with a weird, ambiguous cliffhanger and an upbeat final punchline which defies logic but leaves you with a happy sense of silly good humour, which is more than can be said for a great number of films from the British Isles.

Caine is engaging and commanding in the lead, but he is easily outclassed by Coward's wry performance as the moneyed kingpin as much concerned with the balance of trade between China and Italy as with the job itself. Characteristically ironic and distaff, Coward lords over every scene he's in, ending with one where the massed prison population salutes his triumph. There is however a truly strange turn by Benny Hill, best known as a TV comic, as a computer expert obsessed by overweight women. Not only does he do virtually nothing in the caper itself, but his fate is far from certain at the film's conclusion. But, with his familiar gleeful leers and face like a mischievous cherub, he's funny, and that's all that matters.

The Italian Job has aged in many respects. Initial scenes featuring Caine's amorous adventures with a variety of young beauties will have people thinking of Austin Powers instead of James Bond, and there are many things in the film which make it more of a retro-trip than is good for it. Its 1999 re-release has been relatively muted, but it is worth tracking down if you can find it in your local theatre or on video in widescreen. It is very much a film of its era, down to the sixties fashions in clothing and motor vehicles (it made the mini a classic), and there may be some for whom its popularity is a mystery. It can make for a very enjoyable evening's viewing though, whether taken as quaint time-capsule stuff or just a harmless bit of mindless hokum. If neither is to your taste, then you're best off elsewhere. It is something of a holiday TV classic now, of course, and familiarity breeds contempt, but it is worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.