' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Italian Job (1969)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Italian Job (1969)

The opening credits of “The Italian Job” (1969) show what movies can do. A Lamborghini Miura, piloted by Roger Beckermann (Rossano Brazzi), a cigarette coolly dangling from his lips, winds its way along the Colle del Gran San Bernardo connecting Switzerland and Italy, putting us right in the passenger seat for head-spinning panoramic views of the Western Alps. Sure, sure, Beckermann is not long for this world, his luxurious car blown up in a mountain tunnel by the Italian mob, of whom this notorious thief has run afoul. But that’s not going to mellow “The Italian Job’s” buzz. We see Beckermann again, in fact, via video, passing along details to ex-con Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) about the heist of $4 million in gold giving the movie its title. It’s akin to the IMF receiving instruction in the “Mission: Impossible” TV series and subsequent movies, though less serious, underscored in how Charlie is snacking as he receives Beckermann’s casual directive. The side profile shot of Charlie, looking up at the screen, makes him look for all the world like he’s watching a movie. 

The proper story starts with Charlie exiting jail and going straight to a suit-fitting in a stolen car, demonstrating the film’s prevalent carefree attitude. Indeed, he picks up the plans for the job from Beckermann’s widow (Lelia Goldoni), dressed in black but willing to interrupt her mourning for a roll in the hay with Charlie. The scene segueing to this roll in the hay, in fact, contains a multitude of rolls in the hay, Charlie finding himself in the company of 12, 13, 14, 15, who knows, young women, all of whom have been enlisted purely for his pleasure. Afterwards, he departs the room and enters the hallway, wobbly, hardly able to stand he’s so worn down, and in that moment you can see the line connecting Michael Caine to Mike Myers as Austin Powers.

This is the Swinging 60s, after all, pre-crisis of British manhood, the one A.O. Scott wryly mentioned in his review of “About Time.” In “The Italian Job”, the sun, to paraphrase Scott, has not yet set on “John Bull’s manly old empire.” Quite the contrary, as Charlie goes to show, not to mention Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward), the gang’s benefactor who, despite being locked up in prison, is nothing less than a sort of virtual British King. His introduction is pompously played to the hilarious hilt, escorted to the bathroom by several deferential guards, accompanied by Rule Brittania on harpsichord, a kind of metaphorical ascent to the, ahem, throne. Not to suggest he doesn’t rule with an iron fist. Coward, that old pro, improbably combines the vibe of King George III in “Hamilton” with Michael Caine’s own Jack Carter, a mafioso as royalty, or something, epitomizing the movie’s tendency toward both goofball and violence.

The team Charlie puts in place is mostly beside the point, even Benny Hill as the computer expert enlisted to manipulate a traffic jam so the crew can pilfer the gold who offer suffers form a particular fetish, one intended to generate a few ostensible laughs. Maybe it was A Different Time, I don’t know, but they seemed like jokes that would still play in 2020 at Mar-a-Lago which means they’ve always just been south of sophomoric and manifestly stupid. In any event, Caine’s performance is truly that of a team leader, massaging egos but also breaking skulls, in a manner of speaking, when required. Caine impeccably manages these disparate tones, the master of ceremonies and the star of the show, the Danny Ocean and the Rusty Ryan and even the Linus Caldwell, getting off a few good disbelieving one-liners. 

Unlike modern films in this vein, “The Italian Job” is in no hurry, taking its sweet time to put all the pieces in place for the heist, where the crew’s escape vehicles from the scene of the crime are Mini-Coopers, a Union Jack as mode of transport. This glorious car chase is epitomized in the moment when the fleet ascends the Fiat Building, evades the cops and then descends, captured not in suspenseful close-ups but frequent, comical long shots, letting us take in the whole scene like an entertained spectator. The cop cars are less pursuers than continual butts of the joke, like the sequence where they haplessly try following the Mini-Coopers thrrough the River Po and across a low dam. This moment, like others, is scored to Don Black and Quincy Jones’s “The Self Preservation Society”, underlining the inherent comedy, though the chase is equally funny when remaining au natural, such as the Mini-Coopers briefly invading a wedding party as the cars roll down the church steps. A stunt in which a car jumps from roof to roof was so dangerous that producer Michael Deely apparently had a plane on standby to whisk him out of the country in case things went wrong and the Italian authorities came calling. Perhaps that is hyperbole, but it speaks to how a movie can transform something so precarious in reality into something so blithesome on screen.

The chase ends, of course, high in the Alps with a literal cliffhanger. Perhaps, as some have convincingly argued, this emblemized Britain’s place in the world at that moment in time. Or perhaps it just goes to show that how it ends doesn’t really matter after all the joyful thrills we’ve already been through.

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