Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #13: The Italian Job (1969)

Cast: Michael Caine (Charlie Croker), Noël Coward (Mr Bridger), Benny Hill (Professor Simon Peach), Raf Vallone (Altabani), Tony Beckley (Freddie), Rossano Brassi (Beckerman), Maggie Blye (Lorna), Irene Handl (Miss Peach), John Le Mesurier (Governor), Fred Emney (Birkinshaw), John Clive (Garage Manager).

Crew: Peter Collinson (director), Michael Deeley (producer), Troy Kennedy Martin (writer), Quincy Jones (music), Douglas Slocombe (cinematography), John Trumper (editor), Disley Jones (production designer).

Synopsis: A criminal mastermind called Beckerman is murdered by the Mafia as he tries to leave Italy. In London Charlie Croker departs prison after two years inside, expecting to see Beckerman. Instead he is met by the dead man’s widow, who hands over the plans for her late husband’s greatest scheme. Beckerman devised a way to steal $4 million from a security van travelling from Turin airport to the Fiat car factory in the city. The Italian metropolis has a sophisticated computer-controlled traffic system. Jam the computer and the resultant chaos creates an opportunity to steal the contents of the security van. Beckerman has mapped the only way out of the city during such a traffic jam. Within two hours the thieves could be over the Alps and in Switzerland. Charlie realises he needs help to enact such a plan and enlists the aid of Mr Bridger, a British crime boss who runs his business from inside prison. The robbery goes like clockwork, despite attracting the interest of the Mafia, spiriting $4 million of gold out of Turin in three Minis. But disaster strikes as the coach containing the thieves and their loot travels up the winding road into the Alps. The bus skids out of control and is left balanced over a precipice…

In 1967 Troy Kennedy Martin was a successful British television writer trying to get into movies. That breakthrough came with the concept of a robbery set amidst a traffic jam, which had originally conceived by his brother Ian. ‘My brother came up with it, but his idea was set in London around Regent Street,’ Troy Kennedy Martin told Esquire magazine in 2001. ‘We decided a financial agreement and I took it on. I decided to move the location to Turin, because it has a computer operated traffic light system. From the very beginning, I had set my sights on Michael Caine as the hero and wrote a draft treatment accordingly.’

Having got Caine interested, the writer pitched his completed treatment to Robert Evans, head of production at American studio Paramount. Evans wanted Robert Redford to play Charlie Croker but was persuaded to stick with Caine. Michael Deeley was appointed by Paramount as producer for The Italian Job. Deeley was keen to hire Bullitt director Peter Yates for the film, having seen the car chase in that picture. But Paramount opted for the less experienced Peter Collinson. Troy Kennedy Martin began writing his first draft screenplay.

The Italian Job was a $3 million movie, made during the second half of 1968. The production spent three months filming in Italy. Shooting in Turin was made considerably easier by help from Gianna Agnelli, who owned Fiat – the city’s major employer. He ensured the film received maximum co-operation from local authorities. Conversely, the production got little help from British car company BMC, which made the Mini. Even though the film was a 100-minute advertisement for the vehicle, BMC gave the picture almost no support. The company offered six Minis at trade price. The production had to buy more than two dozen further Minis at retail prices.

All the stunt driving was performed by a French team. ‘L’Equipe Remy Julienne were the best known and the best choice in Europe,’ Deeley says on the film’s DVD commentary. ‘They were able to do amazing work.’ In the 1990s the long chase at the end of The Italian Job was named one of the greatest car chases in cinema history by Total Film magazine. But Deeley says this sequence only came alive with the addition of Quincy Jones’ score in post-production. ‘It was vital, particularly the last 15, 20 minutes of the movie. It just didn’t hold together until Quincy put the music on. Like a tailoring job, it tied the whole thing in.’

Studio work was split between Twickenham and Isleworth, with further location shooting in England and Ireland, the latter for scenes featuring Caine’s co-star, Noël Coward. The legendary British performer was persuaded out of semi-retirement to play crime boss Mr Bridger. Most of his scenes were shot at Kilmainham, a disused prison just outside Dublin. Caine was full of praise for Coward when interviewed by Films and Filming before The Italian Job’s release in 1969. ‘He’s so warm … I think it’s his best screen performance.’ Caine was also impressed by the director: ‘Peter Collinson will go out and shoot things that other people won’t. He’s an extremely determined young man and took this film into both hands and really went out and did it.’

The film gave Caine a chance to lure his brother in front of the camera. Stanley Caine had already made brief appearances in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Play Dirty (1969). ‘I was trying to get him into acting and he didn’t really take any interest in it,’ Michael Caine told the Australian edition of Empire in 2002. ‘It wasn’t for him, which was very disappointing for me as I was so enthusiastic about it.’

One of the biggest problems facing the filmmakers was how to end The Italian Job. Troy Kennedy Martin wrote half a dozen different endings, but Deeley wasn’t happy with any of them. ‘They all ended up as dialogues in Switzerland,’ the producer says in his commentary. ‘I didn’t feel, after all the excitement with the cars and the chase and the whole business, we should end up with dialogue. We were really stuck because all the endings were boring – they bored me.’ Deeley flew to Hollywood to meet with Robert Evans about the problem. On the flight the producer developed an idea for the ultimate cliffhanger, creating the finale for the film. ‘I thought it was a potential lead-in to a sequel if this picture was successful.’ Evans quickly agreed and Deeley flew back with Paramount’s approval. The new ending was unpopular with the screenwriter, director and Caine. Collinson refused to shoot it, leaving the job to his second unit team.

The Italian Job reached British cinemas in 1969, rated U. Critics gave it a mediocre reception, with some dismissing it as just another crime caper with a good car chase. Reaction was just as muted in America, when the movie was rated G. In 2001 Caine told Empire magazine his biggest disappointment was the US publicity campaign. He believed the film was doomed when he saw Paramount’s poster of a machine-gun wielding gangster with a semi-naked woman. ‘So I got on the next plane and came back.’ Despite its failure to ignite the American box office, The Italian Job won the Golden Globe for best English language foreign film.

Like Get Carter (1971), The Italian Job underwent a long-term rehabilitation in the eyes of the public and critics. Countless repeats on television and a video release in 1988 (reclassified as a PG) introduced the film to a new audience. The brash style, swinging 1960s flavour and spectacular car chase helped create a cult following. Troy Kennedy Martin’s satire of British antipathy to Europe was downplayed in the comedy caper, but the red, white and blue livery of the Minis underlined the subtext. By the mid-1990s, Cool Britannia hype was making Caine a British icon with The Italian Job a key part of his appeal. The film has been spoofed numerous times in advertising and music videos.

The Italian Job’s reappraisal was completed in September 1999 when the picture was re-released to British cinemas for its 30th anniversary. The film grossed just over $250,000 but this was just a stalking horse for a subsequent VHS re-release. A BFI poll to find the Top 100 British movies of the twentieth century ranked The Italian Job as the fourth highest place of seven Caine pictures on the list, voted it 36th overall.

Matthew Field’s book The Making of The Italian Job was published in 2001, as a precursor to the movie’s DVD debut. The volume contains almost everything you could want to know about the film. The movie made its DVD debut in 2002. The disc includes a deleted scene, documentaries about the movie and the commentary track.

A new version of The Italian Job was filmed at the end of 2002 and is due for cinema release in 2003. According to advance reports, the bulk of the action takes place during a traffic jam in Los Angeles. American actor Mark Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker with Donald Sutherland as the older crime boss. There was talk of Caine having a cameo in the movie, but he expressed public doubts about this after his experience on the 2000 remake of Get Carter. A fan club devoted to the 1969 film expressed anger at the remake. Deeley told the Sunday Telegraph that shifting the setting to Los Angeles was ignoring the original’s anti-European subtext: ‘It seems like a complete waste of money to me.’

In 2003 Caine’s most famous piece of dialogue from The Italian Job was voted the greatest one-liner in cinema history in a poll run by a mobile phone company. ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ won out over quotes from Gone With the Wind, Withnail and I, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now.

Reviews: ‘A thinly scripted, routine thriller of perfect crime and inevitable retribution, lifted off the ground … by some superb stunt driving.’ – MFB, 1969
‘A perfect blend of cheery xenophobia, chirpy Cockney antics and dry wit.’ – Total Film, 1999

Verdict: The Italian Job is like a postcard from the 1960s – swinging London, vibrant primary colours, great British inventions like the Mini – a snapshot of what you imagine life must have been like on King’s Road. Everyone’s on the make, anything is possible and all it takes is a dozen London wideboys to sting Europe for millions. This movie is a fantasy from start to finish, but it’s a warm, cosy fantasy full of memorable dialogue and automobile antics. The pace never drags, thanks to deft direction, dazzling design and a succession of clever cameos by British comedy actors. The characters may be one-dimensional, but you still want them to find a way out of the cliffhanger ending. Caine is perfectly cast as Charlie Croker, the ultimate lad icon. This movie is lightweight, xenophobic and dated in many respects, but it is still fun – just enjoy it…

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