When I say “The Seventies was the best decade for crime films,” your answer should be “No shit, Sherlock.” The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, Night Moves, The Gauntlet, pretty much anything with Michael Caine… speaking of whom, was in a classic of crime cinematography on the border year of 1969. That would be The Italian Job, a heist flick known for its classic car chases.
So, The Italian Job. After an intro scene where the Mob bumps off some guy in Italy, dapper gentleman gangster Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and immediately sets off on a new job. This time, a heist in Italy, finishing the job planned by the guy killed in the opening sequence: making off with $4 million in gold bars the Chinese are delivering. With the aid of Mr. Bridger (Noël Coward), still living in a luxuriant prison cell, and his girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye), Croker assembles a team to pull off this heist. It includes a number of screwballs, such as Professor Peach (Benny Hill), a computer whiz with a thing for large ladies. They’re walking a fine line, avoiding both the police and the Mafia; with the roaring of engines and crashing of the Italian transit system’s mainframe, they’re off.
What strikes me most is how you can’t make a movie like this any more. Never mind the costumes and so-very-’60s music, I’m talking about the plot and setup: the entire movie is so-very-’60s. Everything is set up, through perfect planning and careful legwork, so that the heist goes in the Brits’ favor. And while there are some surprises for them, it ends up with madcap chase sequences going in favor of Caine’s crew, the Italians stumbling around confusedly, crashing into walls, wrecking their cars, and so on.
There’s no sense that the robbers are in any kind of trouble; the Mafia thread purports to some trick ending, something related to Caine’s girlfriend, but that never appears; and up until the literal cliffhanger, there’s no sense that these guys aren’t going to make off with four million in gold bricks. Part of the problem is that a proposed sequel never appeared, but I was struck by how short the film was—making it shallow in both plot and character development, and its lack of emotion detracts from its attempts to build tension or drama.
Of course, that’s not why you’re watching this movie. You’re watching to see a well-coordinated planning sequence turn into Mini Coopers driving up, through, and over buildings—down into a subterranean mall, into a church, through a sewer system, on a roof, etc. And it’s a fine chase sequence, even if it’s pure Mini glorification, something that the remake latched onto to the point where it was the best two-hour ad for Minis ever made.
And because of that well-executed heist—and chase—the film is deservedly a classic. It’s nice to see an old-fashioned heist go well for the heroes, and the chase scenes are entertaining for their madcap nature, blazing through every kind of location imaginable. But I guess the dark old film noir and gritter late ’60s/early ’70s flicks are more my cup of tea; while I liked The Italian Job as an enjoyable lighthearted romp, with good characterization and fantastic car chases, I thought it was too straightforward, with a feeble plot lacking in suspense or depth. To each their own.