GREAT FILMS: The Italian Job (1969)

The Italian Job (UK, 1969)
Directed by Peter Collinson
Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone 

BFI Top 100: #36 (1999)

The recent Brexit debacle has provided us with an ideal opportunity to address an interesting question: is it possible to be proud of one's own country without simply viewing others as inferior? Long before Edward Said's Orientalism codified the concept of 'self' and 'other' in Western discourse, there was a suspicion that patriotism - and more specifically Britons' pride in their empire and achievements - were rooted in xenophobia backed up by a very impressive army, rather than a more constructive form of self-love (if such a thing exists).
The Italian Job is occasionally held up as an example of said vainglorious culture, sticking a middle finger up to the continent by having the Brits get one over on people with crazy mannerisms and silly accents who drive on the wrong side of the road. Coming from a time before Britain joined what was then the EEC, it can be viewed as either a straightforward, somewhat dated caper film or an ironic comment on Britain's  decline within the wider world. Whichever viewpoint you drift towards, there can be little denying its appeal as one of the most entertaining and technically accomplished films that Britain produced in the late-1960s.
When I first saw The Italian Job, as a teenager with a passion for history, I gravitated towards the revisionist school of thought, seeing it as an interesting commentary on the passing of an age, and the death of an empire on which the sun had all but set. I was too young to have any genuine nostalgia for 1960s culture, with the memories of England's accomplishments of that time being overshadowed by our subsequent failures in both the World Cup and the Middle East. The literal cliffhanger ending (which I will explore in more depth later) felt like a bittersweet twist for the audience, setting us up for the clichéd, feel-good ending and then reminding us that the good times (if indeed they were good times) were over and never coming back.
Elements of this interpretation still hold water in abstract, but you would have a hard time defending it on the basis of the original intentions of the filmmakers, and the audience for whom the film was intended. That being said, it would be wrong to assume that the film is therefore an out-and-out celebration of jingoism, along the lines of The Wild Geese or The Deer Hunter. Unlike those reactionary offerings, which wore out their welcome with some decidedly unsavoury politics, The Italian Job is a more subtle, well-crafted affair which reflects the talent involved.
With the crew of The Italian Job, its reputation is so great that it has come to define them in a way which eclipses their other achievements. Troy Kennedy Martin, who wrote the screenplay, later went on to create the gripping Edge of Darkness and the underrated Reilly: Ace of Spies, featuring one of Sam Neill's best performances. Notwithstanding his reputation for being a slavedriver, Peter Collinson was a very capable director, who later did a very good job on And Then There Were None. And while Michael Deeley later blotted his copybook with The Deer Hunter, he also produced such cult classics as Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Whichever way you look at it, The Italian Job is one of the most technically impressive films of its genre and period. However far CG technology has come since its inception, there is still no real substitute for organic, physical effects and stunt work. The Rémy Julienne stunt team, who drove the Minis and planned everything from the rooftop jumps to the sewer sequence (shot in Coventry), combines fantastic technical precision with welcome visual humour. It's little wonder Julienne ended up designing the driving stunts on every James Bond film from Octopussy to Goldeneye.
Not only are the individual stunts extremely impressive, the wider spectacle of The Italian Job is equally arresting. Bringing a small number of streets to a standstill when shooting a modern-day blockbuster is tricky, never mind bringing a whole city to a halt. The film was one of the very first to be shot in Turin, and the police and officials co-operated willingly to close entire quarters, thanks in no small part to the influence of Fiat which was based there. Fiat's assistance was so great that the production team - partially motivated by the indifference of Mini manufacturer BMC - briefly contemplated replacing the Minis with Fiats (which was thanfully vetoed).
One of the major criticisms of The Italian Job when it was first released was that it focussed too much on the car chases and too little on the characters. The acclaimed American film critic Vincent Canby went so far as to describe it as "emotionally retarded" (an unfortunate turn of phrase). But for all Canby's credibility, on this occasion he was dead wrong, since the main characters of The Italian Job are arguably the aspect which has endured the best.
Much of the initial spark of The Italian Job, before the heist plot gets properly underway, comes from the relationship between Charlie Croker and Mr Bridger. The pair represent a clash of class and attitude akin to Sleuth, with Noel Coward's aloof, gentleman-thief monarchist having very different ideas and priorities to Michael Caine's cunning, working-class upstart. Charlie's efforts to get Beckerman's scheme funded is like watching someone from outside the old boys' network trying to get into one of their exclusive clubs. When Croker demonstrates the worth of his scheme (and to a lesser extent himself), he's admitted, but the old attitudes remain in place.
Allied to Caine and Coward's glittering chemistry, there is a cavalcade of talented British character actors whose screen time is short but energy is great. Tony Beckley, who would later appear in the Doctor Who serial The Seeds of Doom, provides some welcome comic relief as the stuffy yet immaculately dressed 'Camp' Freddie. Benny Hill is as disciplined and focussed here as he was in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, showing how well his talent should be applied with a decent director. Add in John Le Mesurier's cameo (filmed just as Dad's Army was taking off) and a fine villainous turn from Raf Vallone, and you have a very well-rounded, believable and endearing cast.
The ending of The Italian Job has become one of its most defining features. As well as avoiding the pat, predictable ending that would have resulted had the gang made it to Geneva, it also brings a symmetry to the film. The driving through the Alps in the opening credits, followed by the destruction of Beckerman's Lambourghini Miura, is reflected with the tumbling of the Minis and then the bus hanging over the precipice. Filming it was fraught with danger - downdraft from the helicopter getting the aerial shots almost sent the coach over the cliff, with a lot of the crew inside. But the risk paid off, creating a memorable capping for the caper, as well as providing a welcome brainteaser for maths and physics students for decades afterwards.
Inevitably with a film of this period, there are aspects of The Italian Job which haven't dated very well. Besides the fact that nearly all Italians in the film are caricatured as hand-waving, passionate divas who can't drive or calm down, its biggest issue is its attitude to women. Even by the standards of the day, they have very little to do other than walk around in next to nothing (Charlie's "coming-out present") or being the butt of people's jokes (literally, in one instance). It's not as toe-curlingly constant as in something like No Sex Please, We're British, but it's still pretty hard to overlook.
The Italian Job is a great British caper which has largely stood the test of time. Despite its dated politics - whether racial, gender or otherwise - it is still capable of leaving an audience gleefully entertained. Its physical effects and stunt work still stand up to more modern offerings, and the central performances from Caine and Coward are top-draw. If you've never seen it, then 'get a bloody move on' and fix that.


For more of my thoughts on Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell to Earth, check out The Movie Hour podcast from my days on Lionheart Radio.

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