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Italian Job - the film that "Blew the Bloody Doors Off" the heist film genre

PUBLISHED: 08:20 09 February 2019

Michael Caine and Noël Coward in The Italian Job (1969). Photo: Paramount Pictures Corporation/IMDB

Michael Caine and Noël Coward in The Italian Job (1969). Photo: Paramount Pictures Corporation/IMDB

Paramount Pictures Corporation/IMDB

I first saw The Italian Job a couple of years after it was released in a Saturday afternoon double-bill with The Dambusters at Aldeburgh Cinema.

Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969). Photo: Paramount Pictures Corporation/IMDBMichael Caine in The Italian Job (1969). Photo: Paramount Pictures Corporation/IMDB

In the early 70s, long before DVDs or even video, it was quite common to re-release popular films for general release (it was usually at least five years before they turned up on television) and think this was the first time I went to cinema with a group of friends rather than as a family trip.

From the very start of the film I was hooked. It’s fast pace, humorous feel, and frankly dubious moral message appealed to a group of 12/13 year olds (especially coming just after we’d wallowed in the stiff-upper-lip of Richard Todd & Co giving it to the German war machine in the Ruhr).

The Italian Job had just about everything you want in a film (except a romantic plot which wasn’t particularly important to young teenage boys): action, humour, and undoubtedly the best car chase ever filmed (eat your heart out, Bullitt!).

It also has one of the saddest scenes ever filmed right at the beginning – when the Mafia push the team’s getaway high performance cars over the side of a mountain.

I can forgive the Jaguars going over the side – but seeing an Aston Martin DB5 being destroyed as it goes down the mountain is enough to bring tears to the eyes!

The casting of the film is, of course, everything. Michael Caine as Charlie Croker is perfect – as is Noel Coward as Mr Bridger, the prison king-pin who provides the funding for the heist.

Their characters spawned other copies in the years ahead. We wouldn’t have had Grouty in Porridge without Mr Bridger in The Italian Job. Where would ex-con Terry McCann from Minder be without Charlie Croker?

I love re-watching The Italian Job. It’s one of the first films I bought on DVD and it’s one of those movies that always leaves me with a smile on my face.

Set in Turin, against the backdrop of an England-Italy football international, the chase in three Minis is the major set-piece of the whole film. In fact it is not unreasonable to say that the Minis are bigger stars than any of the human actors.

The chase though the streets, pavements and sewers is very inventive – and the idea that the traffic jam could have been created by a computer virus seems very forward-thinking for 1969.

And don’t forget the importance of the music. The repeating theme and “This is the self-preservation Society” intertwined with patriotic English songs all helps build the mood – and Matt Monro’s ballad “On Days Like These” is a great 1960s MOR classic.

There are, looking at it now, one or two flaws. The storyline about Benny Hill’s Professor Peach have a fondness for larger ladies does make me slightly uncomfortable now.

And clearly the film-makers in 1969 were struggling with the notion of allowing our “heroes” to get away with a big crime – at least that’s the explanation I’ve always understood about the (literal) cliff-hanger ending.

That’s not such a problem these days – in fact films like the Oceans series play very heavily on the “loveable rogue” character.

I have seen claims that the cliffhanger wasn’t intended to be a way out of the difficult moral message of the film – it was intended to be the set-up for a sequel.

Sadly although The Italian Job quickly established itself as a British classic – and also did well in Commonwealth countries – it was something of a flop in the US on first release.

Therefore the money and the option for a sequel was never taken up. The theory is that in the Italian Job II the gang would have got out of the coach, but most of the gold would have fallen down the mountain – and they would then be in a race against time to with the Mafia to recover it before the authorities could catch up with them.

Although the movie didn’t set the US box office alight (I’ve never totally understood the American sense of humour) it did become something of a cult classic even there over the years – and Hollywood remade the movie in 2003 with a completely new plot.

In truth this remake isn’t a bad heist film. But it’s not in the same league as the original. The bangs may be louder, the action even more frenetic and the (new) Minis may be larger – but it is devoid of the humour, charm and je ne sais quoit of what is a real classic.

Time for another watch, methinks!

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