The Italian Job Review
“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
This immortal line is one of the few correctly quoted pieces of Michael Caine dialogue, a single sentence which pretty-much sums up the whole ethos of the movie that it is from, the classic 60s Brit crime caper, The Italian Job. Caine is sometimes regarded as a marmite kind of actor – you either love him or you hate him – and, thankfully, unlike with marmite, he falls into the right category for me. His excellent early features included the seminal Brit gangster flick Get Carter, and the vastly underrated anti-Bond spy trilogy following the iconic character of Harry Palmer, and Caine has made a name for himself in these (and other) classic roles, in spite of the fact that you seldom get the impression that he is playing the part with any significant deviation from his own natural personality. I suppose that you could say the same of all of the roles somebody like Harrison Ford is best remembered for (Indy, Han Solo), but Caine’s cocky cockney prevails in everything from Alfie to Sleuth to The Ipcress File, and remains evident even to this day, as he sardonically handles playboy vigilante Bruce Wayne, as Alfred in Chris Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. The Italian Job, early on in his career, was a landmark event, not just for Caine, but for British filmmaking in general. Although, rather strangely, not at the time.
Charlie Croker has just been released from prison. A career thief, it doesn’t take him long to get straight back to business, picking up the plans for a magnificent robbery from the widow of a fellow thief killed by the mafia. The job is in Italy – stealing a massive gold shipment that is being used to help fund the automotive manufacturer, Fiat, in their building of a new factory – and with the initially reluctant backing of a British crime lord, Mr. Bridger, Croker gets the green-light to go to work. The plan involves three British Mark 1 Austin Mini Cooper Ss, the world’s biggest traffic jam, and some nifty driving.
It’s interesting because The Italian Job is hard to describe as a good film in any sense of the word. The acting is almost universally bad and often farcical, the story is a patchwork quilt of silly scenes, and the dialogue tends to drift between cheesy and uninspired. Quite honestly, it seems like the undeniably iconic movie is more favourably reflected upon with rose-tinted hindsight, rather than enjoyed in the present. But you can see why the movie is so iconic. It is quintessentially British, and quintessentially 60s to boot; peppered with trademarks of the era – in manner, dress, and cars. It has some of the best (or certainly most-quoted) lines in British cinema, a classic cheeky Cockney performance from one of Britain’s best and most celebrated actors, and surely the greatest extended advert for a British car that the world has ever seen. Are these all reasons to regard the movie as ‘good’? Well, I’m not really sure about that, but they’re more than enough to make it a classic; to justify its inclusion amidst some of the greatest British movies ever made. After all, it hardly made it to number 36 in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British films list off the back of the acting, script or story – it’s on the list because it defines a whole generation, and because it epitomises 60s Britain (at least the version most people choose to remember).
If you look on the BFI website, it lists all of the films in the Top 100, and gives a short paragraph on why the title is included. Under The Italian Job, it states “A highly entertaining caper movie, which reached cult status thanks to Michael Caine, a trio of Mini Coopers and a sense of 1960s fun that is back in fashion.” And that pretty-much sums it up. Aside from listing the important elements, and highlighting the reasons why it has attained such cult status, the key phrase is the “1960s fun that is back in fashion” bit because, at the time, The Italian Job really didn’t go down very well. I’m not just talking about Stateside, where the Studios releasing it gave it a wholly inappropriate marketing campaign (pitching it as a straight gangster flick - see adjacent poster) but even back here, where Michael Caine himself was a bit unimpressed by the end result. Apparently he took on his defining career masterpiece, Get Carter, because of The Italian Job – just to set the record straight when it comes to London gangsters. No, clearly the movie wasn’t internationally welcomed at the time. In fact, even to this day most non-UK people associate the name not with the 60s Brit classic, but actually with the recent entertaining but unimpressive remake which did, in fact, play it straight. Some might even argue that the remake, rather unusually, is here considerably more professional than the original - boasting an impressive cast who you vaguely get to know and who actually play together as a team (rather than the original, which is driven by Caine only), a reasonably coherent story (as opposed to just an excuse for a climactic car chase) and humour that has its place but doesn't derail the otherwise 'straight' proceedings (i.e. no Benny Hill). Had it been made British, and had they actually used the original minis (the use of the new mini makes no sense - as it's the same size as a normal car, unlike the original mini which was...erm, 'mini'), it could have been a clear winner.
Still, as the years have gone on, the original movie has clearly passed into cinematic history – at least in British terms – as a pure definition of the swinging 60s: a loud, camp, caper which, despite its silliness, still gets some kudos for not even attempting to take itself seriously. I can’t deny its charm, nor deny the fact that Michael Caine's cheeky cockney chappy sees us through the majority of the runtime without ever feeling bored or restless. It’s pure Saturday afternoon frivolity, exactly the kind of movie that you can watch over lazy Christmas afternoon’s letting the turkey settle in – which is probably why it’s been repeat broadcast so often around then. Cheery, harmless and quintessentially British, this is one of those strange additions to the BFI Top 100 which may not be all that technically proficient (there are a couple of fancy split dioptic shots and some gorgeous Italian vistas) but which has earned its place through epitomising 60s British pride and purpose. And it's just a whole lot of fun. Watch it for the Michael Caine lines and the mini car chase at the end and don’t expect too much more in the run-up, and you’ll likely find this an inoffensive, effective and surprisingly entertaining heist caper – one with an unusually adventurous ending to boot (answers on a postcard on how to solve that puzzle).
“Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea...”